Soft Racism in Schools: The Policy of Lower Expectations

The other day our local CBS affiliate reported on its evening news that a powerhouse local school district was under fire for its racist expectations. They interrupted earlier shows dangling this inflammatory and enticing accusation all evening. Ah, I thought. . . Finally! What a number of us have complained of for years is coming to light. I had once literally said to an administrator at my school, “One day, someone is going to sue this place.” And here it was.

The  actual broad cast then presented a hard hitting reporter thrusting his mic into the sweet face of a Mom (African American) who had filed a complaint. The basis of her grievance was she feels the curriculum is too easy on her child; no one at her child’s school expects anything of her because she is black. On the rare occasion her daughter receives homework, it isn’t even graded.

The news reporter then nodded as if this mother had just detailed a KKK orchestrated assassination.

They quickly cut to an interview of the School Board spokesperson, the same county suit who has been speaking into news reporters’ cameras for as long as I can remember. Whatever the accusation has been, she is there to deflect it. She assured us, and Ms. Jones, that in all honesty, “Each school in this school district follows the same curriculum, the same standard objectives. There is no difference in the curriculum or standard objectives from school-to-school, or child-to-child”  She did not lie. She did not tap dance.

End of report.

No one explored if Jones was saying that the white children in her daughter’s school received more homework or more challenging lessons. Noone sleuthed to find whether there was a difference between the grades or assignments of whites and blacks in the school, or between schools of the district.

That was the Station’s full expose.

What groundless, empty reporting. Not even deep enough to be called yellow journalism. Why would anyone assume the school is racist because a mother’s child didn’t get any homework? Where were the Bernsteins and Woodwards?

In my frustration, I wanted to call the station and give them real grounds for their accusations. On a selfish level,  I am contracted not to speak to the media.  On an honest level, I don’t think the CBS affiliate would care even if I did go public. Just casting shade in the direction of the system is enough to make the news folks happy. Worse, breaking my contract won’t stop what so many people are complicit in.

Any teacher in the county knows what Mrs. Jones was trying to say: there is no real, Jim Crow sort of racism going on in this rich, suburban powerhouse. But there is still an insidious “soft” racism occurring daily, particularly in the primarily black schools, often passed down by the schools’ administration. . .often black administrations.

The county in question has eighteen high schools with 2000-3000 students in each. Approximately, eight schools are primarily white, and six primarily black, with four schools being more evenly diverse. All have representations of all races.

Of the “white schools”, 60% of students carry a 3.0 or above GPA on 4 PT. Scale. Of the black schools, 54% carry similar GPA. Looks impressive and almost equal. But when you examine standardized tests like the SAT or the Milestones or in the past the EOCTs, you see a different picture: the racial achievement gap here is nearly a hundred points different on average. This verifies plenty of different possibilities, one of which is grade inflation. If only 6 percent of the population of a black school’s student body can earn a 90 or above on a science-based standardized final, how can 30% of its kids earn an A in the class, while at the white schools, 24% earn in the high 90’s on the same test, yet then earn an A in the class at a much lower rate?

My high school has the third highest graduation rate in the county.  BUT, it consistently remains on the bottom end of the standard test score range.  Let’s save the argument over whether the tests are racially biased. Instead, look at Monique Jones’s accusation. Grade inflation is just one part of the problem.

When working at a white majority school for a white principal, in my personal experience, no administrator ever defined how many kids should pass my class. Noone except the occasional teacher whose class seemed impossible to pass ever got his hands slapped over failures versus pass rates. Even at a school with primarily African American students, with a white principal, in my own experience, I did not hear anything about pass rates. However, at both black schools where I have taught, both head principals, African-American, made passing rates clear. Twenty years ago, in another county I had to witness one of my colleagues suffer a verbal reaming because 20% of her students were failing. These kids did almost nothing in her class or at home to earn a grade; No matter, she was forced to “improve her pass rate.”

At the school where I am now, a few years ago, under a new black administrator, we had been told we had to have a 90% pass rate; then a year after that, it became a 95% pass rate. I’ve reported before that the one teacher who never has any failures at all is rubbed in our faces as a much better teacher than the rest of us. No matter how low her students’ grades are, come the end of the semester, they pass and she is heralded as a better teacher, and rewarded as such. The administrative message is clear: do not fail kids, even those who have failed themselves.

The message is also: do not expect as much from African-American kids as we do from white kids. And I underscore that often black administrators are behind these low expectations to illustrate how complicated this horrible puzzle is.  Society finds it easy to point fingers at traditionally racist institutions when the leaders are white.  And sometimes they are.  But what do we do when the lower expectations for my black students come from a black infrastructure? Graduating high school is important for one’s future success and for one’s self-esteem, and these administrators are-through grade control- trying to manipulate how many of our black students meet that goal, but at what cost?

Here are several effects of this “no fail system” that are typically, but not exclusively found at majority black schools. Zero homework policies, as Ms. Jones complained. Many children of all races across the country don’t bother with homework these days, so administrators protect grades and graduation rates by encouraging teachers to be spare with homework. Some school boards don’t even support failing a student if the failure is due to a lack of homework completion. I have personally been asked by my principal why a student had to read all of a novel or story-often assigned as reading homework; couldn’t the kids learn the same thing from reading a short passage? Black schools, mine included, tend to have more safety net programs, too, where if a kid fails a class, he can take a quick “recovery” session where he completes a two week project after school to earn a 70 in the class he had failed.

At another local majority black school, (and in our school’s ninth grade academy) their solution to failure is this strange “do over” policy, where students have a free pass to retake the same unit test or quiz over and over till they get it right;  Or they enjoy no real due dates for assignments and an turn in missing work as late as they want. Who cares if they still knew nothing by the time they pass the test on the third try, but had simply memorized that “B” was the right choice?  Who cares that the teacher cannot ethically grade a whole term’s work in the last few days of school?   At least the students aren’t failing the class.

Meanwhile, a child of any race just down the road at a white majority school has four novels to read a semester on his own time,  fails an essay test if his handwriting displeases the teacher (which happened to my son), and goes to summer school to retake any class he fails.  Much higher academic standards prevail at this nationally recognized white school than at the majority black schools, and done so without safety nets.

Let me also take a side alley and say that the number and type of discipline referrals vary from school to school. Black children (or white children) at a majority white school will be arrested if they get naked and have sex in the stairwells. They will go to the alternative schools for throwing a punch, just as their white classmates will, but at a black school, teachers follow quotas over how many discipline referrals actually can be filed and how many get past the principal into a child’s  discipline records.

The two naked sex participants at my “black” school were forgiven because of this new term “culture rehabilitative bias,” a flashy term used to describe the idea that people of a lower class don’t know any better, and thus, should not be punished for poor behavior, and if they are, then the punishment is racist. Huh?  Who doesn’t know that having sex in a school stairwell (completely naked, no less,) is forbidden?  Apparently, low-income black children according to our school government live under rocks.

Again, because of administrative attitudes, my students at my black school suffer from lower expectations.

Partly to blame for this pressure is the way principals are rated in order to secure their jobs and receive promotions. . .CcRP, NCLB, AYP, Pay for Performance, what ever is the trendy government threat. Each small detail of success earns a few points towards a school and its principal’s “score.” Students’ results on the SAT, EOCT, Milestones, CRCT, IBST,  Milestones, AP exams, etc.,  can earn or lose points for the principal’s composite.  Even how many kids take AP  courses (whether they pass or not) can affect the principal’s score. Discipline referrals-the amount and the type, graduation rates, and failure rates earn or lose points.

A principal cannot control test scores unless he breaks the law, as did a group of recently convicted administrators and teachers in another local district. But the other elements can be controlled through viable threats and rewards of the teachers.

Funny that no one actually expects our African-American kids to perform, or frankly any child of any race in a black majority school. And here is where the racism rests.

My black students with whom I work are as bright and capable as my white students have ever been. My school over the last two decades has undergone a racial shift, and while the raw intelligence of all of my students has remained the same, the expectations have changed. Administrators of both races often cite economics and home life as a factor (excuse) for their varying policies and demands. They cite these differences: My school, 30% of kids have both parents at home, 40% with college degrees, and recall it is a Title I school. The white school just across Main Street, 76% of the students have both parents at home, 87% of the families have at least one parent with a college degree. And it is one of the wealthier schools in the county.

Ok. Does that mean really, that I should automatically believe my students are too incapable to earn a grade on their own and I should give it to them?  (On that same note, universities have a system to rank course grades from each school, fully aware of grade padding that goes on at certain schools; does this mean the black child with a 3.0 from my school who doesn’t get in, while the white kid with a 3.0 from a more demanding school does, is a victim of the university’s racism or my school’s lower expectations?)

Does this mean that when they are signed into my AP courses against their will just to boost some principal’s pointless score, I should dumb down my lessons? (And do they deserve to suffer in huge  40 seated AP classes, much larger than the high scoring white schools, with their 22 seats, in order to gain points that the principals are afraid cannot be won through scores? ) My administration seems to think so.  Yes, administrators dishonestly  argue in their defense that some of the kids who are forced in will benefit; And this will be true.  But many will fail, and then I am forced to pad their grades.

Does it mean that when students at my school violently jump a stranger in the bathroom for his shoes, they deserve to get a detention rather than a police citation?    I have witnessed a “gang” style hit with a group of young men kicking another student in the head; one of the students threatened to “kick [my] ass” if I said anything.  The assistant administrator wanted me to simply ignore zero tolerance  rules for teacher threats since the kid apologized at the administrators bidding. Yet, at a majority white school, a kid did a little pelvic thrust dance when he insinuated a teacher was “helping him” after school.  No threat. Nothing more than that and he was removed from the school system for a year.

No, the county assigns the same curriculum and standard objectives in writing to every school, true. But the daily delivery of these objectives is VERY different from school to school.

The news reporting on Ms. Jones’s complaint could dig deeper. They would find that soon, even the testimony that the curriculum is the same, might not be true.

Next year, at all the Title I high schools (which all happen to also be majority black) the county is rolling out something called Academic Academies. Students choose a major, and then supposedly all their academics and electives will be tailored toward this major. This  design has had great success in “building grades and graduation rates” in other urban areas in the country. So Language Arts, for instance, is supposed to look different in the Science academy than in the Media academy, though, so far we still haven’t received any training on how this will work; we have only received the same curriculum as every other school (and academy). Feels as if  we Title I schools are becoming trade schools.

The newspapers have quotes from administration about how awesome this change is, the “new wave of the future” and “cutting edge education.”

Okay, if so fabulous, why not implement this method in the whole county? Or if it needs “test-running”, why not at a few various schools of varying profiles for comparative results?  Why just the majority-black schools?

Soft racism?  Or just plain, old racism?

Ultimately, all these differences in expectations and policies say to my smart, capable students that they are different, they do not deserve the same education, and that they cannot handle the demands of academia like white kids can.

This is what Monique Jones is onto.  She knows that her daughter is not learning as much as kids at majority white schools (but could). She just doesn’t really know how to prove it. I hope she gains momentum and gathers other parents who want their children to have not only degrees and a GPA, but an actual education; her daughter deserves it.  Maybe receiving this lament will help her.

Of, course, when I have vocalized such concerns, I simply suffer the “get on board” and “Be a team player” admonishments from my administration.