Privilege and oppression in education

A nationwide tempest is brewing around admissions to public middle and high schools, as well as public and private universities. Everywhere we are seeing shouting confrontations at school board meetings, white tears at school gatherings, and lawsuits over testing and admission criteria. The protests over efforts to distribute educational resources more equitably across communities are today’s face of segregation.

If you ever wondered about the confusing and opaque explanations for the “achievement gap,” the gap in grades and scores between white (and some Asian American) students and most students of color, here is the issue writ large. For the gap is not a natural phenomenon. It is the measure of constructed difference, a difference that pretends that the racial and class privilege in America is simply a matter of objective meritocracy.

In a system driven by standardized tests, and under a testing regime whose only identifiable correlation is between family income and scores, the achievement gap is a construction that favors the wealthy. The achievement gap is not a measure of intelligence or even achievement. It is a reflection of a fixed game, one set up for predictable outcomes. Wealthy parents make sure that their schools have the best facilities and the most meaningful instruction — not the deadly rote drilling reserved for the poor, but opportunities for exploration and discovery. This is why Gloria Ladson-Billings suggests the term “education debt” rather than achievement gap; it is a debt owed to poor communities as a result of withheld resources, faulty assessments, and violence against home cultures.

And the parents of privilege (along with some elitist teachers, administrators, and foundations) are the ones who patrol the schools, searching for any danger that the current system — which reproduces hierarchies of privilege — might be changing even a little bit. Three recent studies explore the insidious ways that individual self-interest battles in schools favor those with social capital — the connections and practices and ability to play the game. Lareau, Weininger and Barrett Cox demonstrate the ways that entitled parents, in their efforts to help themselves and their children, harm schools for poor kids. Hagerman found the same problems in an extensive study in Los Angeles.

And the recently released book, When Middle Class Parents Choose Urban Schools, by Posey-Maddox shows how parental playing of the game, especially in a system that mimics the market, exacerbates inequalities.

One would think that middle class parents moving into urban schools would be a plus, bringing resources and clout to districts. But that is like imagining that gentrification makes neighborhoods “better.” Yes it does — for those who have moved in, but certainly not for the original residents.

If the problem ended there, if it were just well-meaning actions by privileged parents, actions that have unintended consequences of harming Black and Brown kids, it would be bad enough. But the true viciousness of the hierarchy is revealed whenever communities actually make some efforts to modify the game or make it more equitable. I have written about this before, in relation to the maintenance of the internal segregation at Berkeley High School, where I used to work.

In the past year, the battles over equity and privilege in education have broken out everywhere. A few examples:

· New York schools chancellor Richard Carranza has made some minor attempts to desegregate public schools on the upper west side of Manhattan. Suddenly the polite parents of the tony neighborhood were seen screaming and shouting against these small changes, much like the famous Louise Day Hicks of the bussing struggles in Boston of 1970s.

· Attempts to modify admission criteria to elite public New York? high schools have led to an uproar by White and Chinese-American parents who might see their test-achieved privilege narrowed a tiny bit. While the Asian parents charge racism against them, they are in fact working closely with the famous anti-integration white legal activist Edward Blum.

· Blum is also connected to the major lawsuit against Harvard’s mild affirmative action project, again using Asian American families as a battering ram.

· In San Francisco, a school board attempt to slightly modify admissions criteria for the elite Lowell High School immediately ran into opposition, with a group of alumni claiming paternalistically that these poor Black and Brown kids would probably not be able to succeed at the school.

Sixty-four years after Brown v. Board of Education sought to outlaw segregation in order to equalize access to resources, the forces of educational hierarchy and segregation are stronger than ever. And, it is likely to get worse. As charter schools suck more and more of the connected or motivated parents out of the system, the families that remain in the public school are pitted against each other even more. We can thank Eva Moskowitz, the charter giant of New York, as well as the privileged parents, for this.

Today’s face of segregation and militant protection of privilege is no longer a gruff governor George Wallace standing on the steps of the University of Alabama to block black students. Many of today’s educational racists likely voted for Obama. Indeed, some of them might support tutoring and other supports to elevate the chances of a few from poor communities to rise in the system. But do anything to make significant change and you are in for it.

What is to be done? In the first place, we need to revive and complete the Civil Rights movement — in the area of education, the rules of the game have all been defined by those with privilege. We need to demand, as Robert Moses says, education as a constitutional right. The resources, the buildings, the labs, the teachers — all of these are collective social wealth, created by the labor (sometimes unpaid slave labor) of all. And all have a right to it. In the 1960’s the demand, sometimes won for brief times, was for complete open admissions. We need to get back to that perspective. And we need accountability — not accountability to education corporations like Pearson or to foundations like Gates, but accountability to communities, their needs and priorities. We have a long way to go but without a vision and demand, we can’t even take the first step.

Rick Ayers is an associate professor of education at the University of San Francisco.