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Part 9 in my Top 10 Trends of 2014 series

Education is the civil rights issue of our time,” you’ll often hear politicians and education reform types say.

I maintain that civil rights remain the civil rights issue of our time. When we see, for example, the Supreme Court overturn part of the Voting Rights Act, when we see rampant police violence against marginalized groups, when we see backlash against affirmative action and against Title IX protections, when we see rampant discrimination – institutionalized – in people’s daily lives, we need to admit: there are things that the “education gospel cannot fix.”

This year marked the 60th anniversary of the landmark Brown v Board of Education Supreme Court decision. And yet, public schools in the United States remain deeply segregated and are systematically becoming even more so.

So when you look back on 2014 – on a school year in which for the first time “minority” students are the majority of public school students, all while less than 20% of their teachers are people of color, on a year that saw unemployment for recent Black college graduates hit a rate more than double that of all college graduates – it’s really, really hard to see education as the vehicle for civil rights. And too often, education been an institution engaged in quite the opposite, playing a key role in exclusion, not to mention in incarceration.

The school-to-prison pipeline did gain some attention this year (hopefully we’re on the path to shutting it down), with the Obama Administration issuing guidelines in January recommending “public school officials use law enforcement only as a last resort for disciplining students, a response to a rise in zero-tolerance policies that have disproportionately increased the number of arrests, suspensions and expulsions of minority students for even minor, nonviolent offenses.” In March, the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights released civil rights data compiled from all 97,000+ public schools in the country. Among the findings, “Black students represent 18% of preschool enrollment but 42% of students suspended.” And this, from earlier this month: “Data from the Office for Civil Rights at the United States Department of Education show that from 2011 to 2012, black girls in public elementary and secondary schools nationwide were suspended at a rate of 12 percent, compared with a rate of just 2 percent for white girls, and more than girls of any other race or ethnicity.”

Tens of thousands of unaccompanied children from Central and South America arrived at the US border this year, seeking asylum here. The response from Americans was incredibly ugly. President Obama took executive action on immigration reform in November, offering limited legal status (a temporary reprieve from deportation, that is) to up to five million of the country’s 11.4 million undocumented immigrants. Again, the response from some: panic, vitriol, a concern about money, not people.

In 2014, affluent kids continued to do well. As they do. According to the AP, “Wealthier parents have been stepping up education spending so aggressively that they’re widening the nation’s wealth gap.” (Bonus: a school fundraiser that let parents buy their kids out of having to do homework. The price: $100.)

Speaking of affluence, the College Board, facilitators of the SAT and the AP exams, claimed this year that by partnering with Khan Academy) for free SAT test prep, they were going to be able to neatly wipe away some of the socioeconomic problems that the test has faced – that is, that scores are correlated to wealth.

The College Board also issued a statement this year “on behalf of itself and the Educational Testing Service, apologizing for a T-shirt that was made and sold by high school and college teachers who gathered in June to grade Advancement Placement exams in world history. Those who grade the exams have a tradition of creating a T-shirt, but this year’s version offended many Asian Americans who were at the event.” The shirt was straight-up racist.

But the College Board’s AP curriculum was defended by students in the Jefferson County (Colorado) school district, who staged protests over a district proposal to review the AP curriculum so as to be sure it would “promote patriotism, respect for authority and free enterprise and to guard against educational materials that ’encourage or condone civil disorder.’” The College Board said that it would not accept AP credits from those who fiddled with the curriculum, prompting the district’s Latino students to point out how access to AP classes and credits is an important equity issue.

So is education “the new civil rights movement” as ed-reformers want us to think? Hell, is it even a vehicle for civil rights? Or is it a vehicle for something else?

I mean, you have to wonder when a “teaching experiment” in a high poverty school in Detroit involves placing 100 kindergarteners into one classroom. Or when a group of white teachers show up wearing NYPD t-shirts in response to protests about the NYPD’s killing of an unarmed Black man.

Are schools a safe place for all students? 2014 suggested otherwise: The Department of Education released a list of 55 institutions it was investigating over their handling of sexual assault on campus. 23 K–12 school districts are also under investigation. When facing legal challenges for negligence in sexual assault cases, many schools blamed the victims. (Or worse. Much worse.)

There were over 40 school shootings in the US, and around the world terrorist attacks on schools are on the rise. Campus police officers are increasingly becoming militarized. (Scrutiny prompted the Los Angeles School District Police Department to return three grenade launchers, but it said it would keep 61 rifles and a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected armored vehicle.)

Are schools a safe place for educators? Employment became more and more precarious this year with concerted, legal attacks on tenure for public school teachers in New York and California and with attacks on academic freedom, most notably perhaps when the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign’s rescinded its job offer to professor Steven Salaita after he tweeted his support for Palestine. What protections do tenure really offer? Racist campus policing practices affected professors as well as students.

Are schools a safe place to work? What is that work? The work of teaching? Learning? Research? Sports? Who profits from this work?

And how is technology – education technology – changing all of this?

Read the rest of this 4000+ word post here.

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Audrey Watters


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