This post—Part Two of my Black History Month series on how race impacts education—is very special to me. It is written by Peter Meyer, the first professional editor I ever had, from my post-undergraduate internships at People and Time magazines in the mid-1990s. Peter poured into my early writing career at a time when I felt invisible to other editors. Two months ago, I found Peter on the Internet making an ed policy presentation, and then I turned the tables by asking him to write for me.
One of the more memorable moments in my 15-year career as an education journalist and reformer was when “Miss Bunny” turned to me in the middle of an anti-racism planning meeting and said, “I think you’re part black.”
This was quite a compliment from a woman who was the voice of black protest in our small upstate New York community, Hudson, where the school district of 2,400 students was just over 30 percent black and 60 percent free and reduced lunch. (For the record, I am an Oregon farm boy of Irish, Welsh, and German ancestry.)
Lynn Carr had earned her “Miss Bunny” sobriquet from the many poor African-Americans she had been helping with her food bank and education programs for nearly two decades. I had met her not long after moving to town with my wife and young son in the mid-1990s, when I began work to establish a community learning center.
“You have to talk to Miss Bunny,” was the word I got from the African-Americans in the neighborhood where I wanted to set up the learning center. Miss Bunny was the go-to person for community questions that involved African-Americans. While my learning center idea got detoured when the town’s powerbrokers leveled the old house I had wanted to renovate for the project, I soon joined the board of Miss Bunny’s school for young black dropouts and over the next two years plunged into the life of the town’s dispossessed. (One of my jobs was to pickup students at their house or apartment to make sure they got to school.)
I left briefly to run for school board, believing that I could “do more,” as I told Bunny, “working on the inside.” I won a seat, but lasted only six months. (I wrote about it here.) I rejoined Miss Bunny and her small contingent of followers and friends and so became fully engaged in the life of the black community in Hudson. I not only came to know and love that community, I came to appreciate what a raw deal black kids were getting in our schools.
And thanks to No Child Left Behind’s mandate to disaggregate school test scores, I began to see the numbers that were driving the district’s school-to-prison pipeline: black students were twice as likely as their white counterparts to fail state reading and math tests, get suspended, and drop out before graduating.
There was the overt racism, which I saw frequently enough. A white parent once came to a school board meeting, stationed himself in the front row of the audience section and asked how the racial distribution of students was made in classrooms. The question set off such a backroom fury (I learned quickly that “executive sessions” were where the big decisions got made) that the Superintendent ordered the transfer of several black kids out of this parent’s daughter’s class.
But as common as the explicit prejudice was, it was the covert kind that was, in many ways, more destructive; made more so by the absence of a rigorous content-rich curriculum and the deeply embedded loyalty to “child-centered” teaching.
Absent a well-defined course of study, teachers were left to their own devices (part of the accepted system culture of “teacher autonomy”) to identify what the academic “needs” of a child were and to figure out how to teach to them. This was especially insidious in a district where all but one teacher was white. Instead of enjoying a common curricular currency black kids were at the mercy of teachers who not only believed in the determinism of poverty and parents, but who also didn’t have a high opinion of black culture or what black students “needed.”
I once visited a second-grade classroom in which 15 white students were sitting on the floor around their teacher, reading, while several black students roamed freely. Periodically, the teacher asked the African American children if they wanted to join the group; the answer was always no, and she kept on reading.
Ironically, it was a white Korean War veteran and perennial school tax gadfly who brought our dismal academic statistics to a school board meeting and asked why our district was doing so much worse than other districts that had the same high rates of poverty.
It was because “We have the highest minority population rate of those districts,” said the Curriculum Director. “It’s certainly a challenge; it can be a problem for us. It’s more difficult to deal with some of these issues with high minority numbers.”
(He was wrong. Though blacks were indeed failing at disproportionate rates, the actual number of poor whites who were failing was greater than that of African-Americans—and thus whites, by virtue of their numbers, were in fact contributing more to the district’s lousy overall academic performance numbers than their black counterparts.)
When the Curriculum Director’s “minorities” comment became a front page story in the local paper, all hell broke loose. It galvanized a black population that had been, with the exception of Miss Bunny, quiet in the face of persistent racism that included having low expectations.
The school board president tried to apologize, but only dug the hole deeper: “This is not about a person’s skin color,” he said. “This is about cultures. Some ethnicities do not embrace educational values, but that has nothing to do with skin color.”
Over the next several months we organized half a dozen community meetings and workshops. At one, the white principal from one of our elementary schools stood and said, “There is racism in this district.” We filed a complaint with the Federal Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. I hand-delivered a petition to the office of the New York State Commissioner of Education, signed by 200 parents and community members, asking for State intervention.
While the incident was cathartic and produced some good things, little changed for black students. The Commissioner never responded. The feds tossed out the complaint. And the academic performance, suspension rate, and graduation numbers for African-American students barely budged over the next ten years. (I know because one of the last things I did as a member of the school board, which I rejoined in 2007, was oversee a task force to evaluate the district’s Code of Conduct and we found that the racial disparities remained stark.) I began to wonder whether the integration that Brown v. Board of Education had so famously promoted was all that good for blacks.
By coincidence, the same month that our curriculum director blamed African Americans for the district’s academic woes, May of 2005, I ran across a story in the New York Times which quoted Martin Luther King’s opinion of the Brown decision:
I favor integration on buses and in all areas of public accommodation and travel.... I am for equality. However, I think integration in our public schools is different. In that setting, you are dealing with one of the most important assets of an individual -- the mind. White people view black people as inferior. A large percentage of them have a very low opinion of our race. People with such a low view of the black race cannot be given free rein and put in charge of the intellectual care and development of our boys and girls.
This was a Eureka moment for me - to know that the great civil rights leader appreciated not just the significance of an education but the dangers of partnering with an education system that was still very much a white-run institution.
What to do? For me, the cause of our problems - at least, the most changeable cause -- was clear: the district had no curriculum. Knowledge, as I had learned from E.D. Hirsch, the author of the 1987 bestseller, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Should Know, was the greatest source of future success for all people, rich and poor. Unfortunately, like so much of our public education system, our district had replaced a belief in teaching a set body of knowledge with one that focused on child development and child-centered teaching, thus robbing poor blacks of the most important key to unlocking the door to prosperity: knowledge.
In my fifteen years of trying to bring equal opportunity to my tiny school district, I have come to appreciate the fact that poor black parents have the same dreams for their children as rich whites: a good education.
But for all the success of the Civil Rights Movement, the white establishment never delivered the public education system that should have provided African American children with the intellectual cash they needed to get out of the economic ghetto. The worst part is that we continue to pretend that we did.
PETER MEYER, a former news editor of Life Magazine and author of seven nonfiction books, is founder of School Life Media. He is also a contributing editor of Education Next and a fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Follow him on Twitter @boardseyeview.
The opinions expressed in Charting My Own Course 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.