Education Opinion

Monstrous Labels, Part II: Tuskegee Experiment

By Nancy Flanagan — February 12, 2014 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

“What traditional public schools face is not so much a gentleman’s dispute as it is an existential threat. Signs abound that public schools increasingly find themselves pressed to the ropes by opposing forces fed by an extremist ideology bent on privatizing the system. For quite some time, there has been a well-orchestrated, well funded, and extremely influential movement to literally get rid of public schools.”

Jeff Bryant, False Compromises in the Education Debate

I visited Dachau in 1977, the day before I flew home from a summer spent backpacking in Europe. It was a drizzly, grey day and I had the place nearly to myself--so perhaps that’s why it was possible to stand in the empty yard and hear, plain as day, faint but chilling echoes of the shouting and the screams. The word that came to mind, in that terrible place, was sacrifice. A word whose roots mean “to make sacred.”

I share this observation not as some kind of proof that I, myself, comprehend this monstrous degree of pain and injustice. Clearly, everyone who writes about the existence and meaning of cultural holocausts--including The Holocaust--must bow to the experience of the ones who lived it. Our only possible ethical response, however, is to try to take the sacrifices made in humanity’s historical tragedies and make them sacred, through remembrance and honor.

That’s an enormously difficult thing to do, fraught with false equivalencies and cultural misappropriation. But is it wrong? When you’re faced with what Jeff Bryant--correctly, in my opinion--labels an “existential threat” to an essential cornerstone of democratic equality, public education, is it immoral to call up the spirit of other existential threats to democracy, other weapons of human destruction?

Just asking. It’s an honest question. Shouting down honest questioners is never an invitation to dialogue, as my friend TeacherKen reminded me, five years ago.Rule #1, in tearing down walls of difference and unequal privilege: listen.

Here’s how the Education Achievement Authority (EAA) in Michigan came to be compared to the Tuskegee Experiment. Dr. Stephen Wellinski, Eastern Michigan University, describes the EAA policy and program (slightly edited to reflect events today):

The EAA is a state-level “recovery school district” created by MI Governor Rick Snyder. It could only be created by way of an inter-local agreement made with another public institution, in this case Eastern Michigan University. The education faculty of EMU were never consulted; they learned about this agreement from a press release.

The EAA is an unelected body that takes over “underperforming” schools (the bottom 5%). Changes to the EAA now being proposed--today, in the MI legislature--allow the EAA to continue taking over the bottom 5% of schools--but no longer limiting the takeover to the bottom 5%, according to the currently proposed bills.

The EAA is an outright attack on democracy and a ploy to privatize public schools. When the EAA takes over a school, it performs a mass firing of teachers. The school is removed from its home district and also from the purview of its elected board.

The teaching model and curriculum (one teacher to 50 students, in front of a computer program) now in practice in fifteen Detroit schools has been roundly and rightly criticized and is not supported by any research. When a school gets to move out of the EAA, it is not returned to its home district. Rather, it is given to private charter groups and education management organizations (EMOs), over 80% of which in Michigan are for-profit.

The EAA is currently in its second school year of operation. Not much authentic data was generated in the first year, although there was afair amount of unsubstantiated hype, including a poorly thought-out remark from Chelsea Clinton on Education Nation that she’d happily put her (imaginary) children in an EAA school. In spite of all the cost-cutting, the EAA had to borrow money (perhaps illegally) to finish the year. In the second year, fleshed-out information has begun to surface--and it is pretty awful.

Eclectablog just published a phenomenal series of interviews with EAA teachers, the best first-hand reporting (besides the abysmal test scores) on what’s really happening in Michigan’s “recovery” school district. It’s ugly. See here, here,here, here, here, here and here (with similar powerful language) for more information from the EAA front.

In along, detailed, credible interview, a veteran educator describes what can only be called abuse and malpractice. One horrifying detail: administrators smacking kids on the hands with rulers, then dousing their burning palms with hand sanitizer to make them sting. In this interview, the teacher compares the EAA situation to the Tuskegee Experiment--certainly a hot-button analogy. His comment made it into the headline--and Eclectablog’s reporting got picked up by Diane Ravitch, who also used the analogy in her headline.

And then, suddenly, the conversation shifted. We weren’t talking about the reckless things that my state government is doing to vulnerable African-American children in our largest city any more. We were talking about whether it was OK to use an egregious historical injustice to describe a current offense.

Here’s where the false equivalencies and charges of cultural misappropriation come in.

Remember--the teacher who made the analogy was there, every day. He took a huge risk in sharing his story. Was his comparison misappropriation of unrelated, historic evil-doing to make a lesser point? Was it unethical?

Consider these particulars, regarding the treatment of children in EAA schools:

  • A policy-created situation not acknowledged or seriously investigated by mainstream press; children in Detroit have been systematically neglected and ignored for decades.
  • Involves high-poverty, chronically underserved, extremely vulnerable African-American children and their families.
  • Reveals a lack of moral concern on the part of powerful decision-makers, in pursuit of what they label a “higher” goal (when they talk about it at all).
  • Very much an experiment, in that there are no precedents or collected research to support such policies and practices.
  • Reports from inside the experiment reveal chaos as to clear mission, as well as emotional, intellectual and even physical abuse of children--hundreds of children.

And under all of that--the clear threat to public education, via executive fiat, and perhaps, depending on this week, legislation. Is the right to a free, genuinely high-quality public education equivalent to the right to be informed before you’re injected with a fatal disease? It’s a pointless question. But it led to a whole lot of all-caps outrage and “you’re not my friend anymore” and baseless accusations on Twitter. Among people who should be friends and have a common mission. Some things, evidently, aren’t even discussable. Which is a shame.

I try to keep in mind that people from different points of privilege--male, white, Anglo-Saxon, rich, credentialed, heterosexual--see things from different perspectives and respond in ways that might be considered tone-deaf to other observers. Paul Thomas wrote an excellent series of blogs on “tone” in the education discourse that unpacks the difficulty of trying to find each other’s core values in language and defends the necessity of not playing nice all the time.

I also know that the first three responses to accusations of sexism, racism, and other personal and social biases usually are: #1) Not me! I’m not prejudiced! and #2) Not me! I’m not privileged! and #3) Other people have done the same--no, worse--things! We all do this, digging in our heels when we could be learning. But you can’t learn unless you’re communicating.

Where does that leave us on the question of treating the deliberate destruction of public education as a gentleman’s dispute vs. pulling out the rhetorical big guns?

We need constant reminders of what terrible things human beings are capable of doing, even if we find it unbelievable that they’re under that impression their actions are morally acceptable. I’m willing to listen to what people on the front lines are telling me. It’s the only way to learn from our own shameful past, to make tragedy sacred.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.