On Ridiculous Assertions By [Some] White Liberals

Jose VilsonEducation, Jose35 Comments

Oh well-meaning “liberals,” you sound ridiculous even when you don’t realize it. I’d be more offended if I didn’t hear some of the nonsense from Black people, too. Whenever you say things like,

What we need is more vocational schools and alternative schools so that our lower functioning kids can at least have a chance at being productive members of society.”

it usually means no-good very-bad racist things you’re probably not even aware of. If we’re being idealistic, then 10-20% of every type of kid might find themselves in these schools that help them become professionals in a profession not fostered by the usually rote traditions of high schools. These kids would get some sort of technical or art degree and do marvelously after school and have the option of pursuing an advanced degree from a four- to five-year college, and voila! They’re on their way to pursuing the American Dream.

Realistically, though, too many teachers and school staff still equate “low-performing” with people who are learning the English language for the first time or people … of … color. There. I said it. It makes people uncomfortable that I should mention that not every educator has the same sense of dedication to our students. Some educators still believe that they’re “saving” children. Others think that their skin color is a cause for Dangerous Minds defense mechanisms or Freedom Writers heroism.

Half the time, I feel like telling these teachers like I used to tell my boys in the club, “Yo, just chill out. Bounce with the beat. You’re doing too much.” Other times, I just crack the hell up while they try too hard. Mostly, I just get Angry Black Man in my own mind and snicker loudly. I mean, what do you want me to say? Our kids get disproportionately pegged for these alternative schools for a few reasons, one of which is that these teachers typically see people of color as their servants, so they think it’s normal for there to be such an uneven distribution of opportunity for all students.

I’m not at all saying that every kid should be the same, but they should get all the same opportunities, and arrive at their own conclusions by their own initiative. They shouldn’t have to feel like they only have a chance in vocational school because all the kids’ teachers said they weren’t particularly good at anything. They shouldn’t be required to go to these schools because, through AYP measures, those “low-performing kids” need to be scrubbed somehow from this particular school to a school where such measures don’t matter to the general populace. They shouldn’t be castigated to whatever rung you chose for them because they look, sound, feel a certain way.

Also, if you’re racist, admit it. It’s the first step toward recovery.

Jose, who still remembers how to rant …

p.s. – In the face of corporate bludgeoning and political kowtowing, what does it mean to be “productive?”

Comments 35

  1. Thank you for giving me something to think about tonight! I think I am one of those teachers you mention who still believes that I am “saving” my students. I still think I can change the world by “saving” one student at a time. But now you’ve got me thinking harder about that loaded word, “saving”.

    If I am “saving” students, that implies that they are in dire need of assistance. That implies that their current situations are perilous. They are at-risk for certain disastrous consequences. They are surrounded by impending doom.

    Am I wrong to judge my students’ lives as needing “rescue”? I am trying to “save” them from a catastrophic cycle of poverty, from a life of lethal low self-esteem, an abyss of unfulfilled potential, a half-life trapped behind bars.

    By deeming their environment dangerous and unfit, am I being racist or socio-economic-classist? Wouldn’t it be worse to say that they like to live poor, uneducated, uninspired–that’s good enough for them? What if I were Hispanic or black? Would I still be trying to “save” these students? It’s a tricky issue you’ve brought up for me. “Saving” is what we white people do–Doesn’t everybody want to be like us?

    Somebody’s got to save these kids from themselves. Or help them help themselves. Or teach them to fish. Yadda yadda yadda.

    I sincerely thank you for forcing me to think about this. Please let me know what you think, if you have time.

  2. It was actually my own (white) nephew (-in-law) who made me realize the need for high-quality career-vocational-technical education. He is from the wealthy branch of the family and lives in one of the top two or three most high-wealth communities in the nation. Both his parents are high-powered doctors, and they were and are utterly flummoxed about what life path there is for a kid who’s obviously not college-bound. He has an unbreakable safety net due to the family wealth. Others don’t.

  3. Jose, I agree with you…Alternative and vocational schools? No, what we need is to provide the same high-quality educational opportunities for every child, regardless of what zip code they reside in. Alternative and vocational schools is just another excuse to provide “lesser” opportunities to children who don’t fit the US “norm”–white, middle-class/affluent, monolingual. I don’t know that I would classify this as racism– I don’t think our society has appropriate language to describe the existence, maintenance, and expansion of educational inequities of “other” groups in comprehensive terms–it certainly includes racism, but it is also encompasses classism and linguicism.

    In terms of the “superhero” mentality–and in response to Kristi’s comment–by having the mentality that you are “rescuing” or “saving” you are creating a good-bad dichotomy. That is, you and your way of life are good, and your students’ way of life is bad. Therefore, you are going to “save” them by assimilating them into middle-class white culture. The truth is that all children come to school with cultural resources, language, and experiences that they value and that shape their identity–and when you create a situation where their way of life is “bad” and yours is “good,” what conclusions will they draw about themselves, their family, their community? On the other hand, because students will need to be able to negotiate and navigate dominant white culture in order to be “successful,” it is important that you teach them to do so–but in a way that also values their own experiences, culture, language, and community and encourages societal critique rather than self-condemnation and self-hatred. The issues of poverty and criminality are caused by deeply ingrained societal inequities, NOT the individual, and they should be examined and critiqued that way. If you really want to build your students’ self esteem, while equipping them for success in “mainstream” society, you will make it a priority to validate their own resources and knowledge while scaffolding skills like academic language and “mainstream” behavior norms, all while encouraging and building skills for societal critique.

  4. Post

    Kristi, I think Kate addressed it pretty well, but here’s my quick answer: you’re not trying to be their savior (which also perpetuates a power structure you and I both know exist). You’re trying to help them become better versions of themselves. See them for who they are and if you’re doing it right, they will open themselves up to your tools. Saving assumes that their present selves aren’t good enough. And as a Black man, I’ve heard other Black and Latino people say similarly (though very infrequently), and they got the same exact explanation from me. It smacks of paternalism …

    Caroline, I appreciate the sentiment. I should probably let you all know that I don’t have a problem with vocational schools of any nature. I just don’t think it should be “forced” upon our kids for people’s own views.

    Kate, agreed. It’s what bell hooks calls “intersectionality.” The combination of race, class, gender, etc. can often obfuscate the inequities we see.

  5. Jose–I heart bell hooks. :-) This morning I “revised” Ted Nugent’s rant from the Washington Times over on my blog–a lot of it has to do with inequalities and stratification of educational opportunity. If you care to read it–www.teachersaschangeagents.wordpress.com.

  6. In my SW PA corner of the world, it’s often white parents who are asking for HIGH quality vocational training. Meaning, what we often had here in the past and which has been gutted. Kids attending real schools, with real teachers and classes in the morning and then high quality vocational training in the afternoons, often with internships for the summer and jobs upon graduation.

    There are generations of kids now working in low-level service jobs with a hs diploma, who have missed a chance at a living wage and a viable lifestyle that can support a family.

    Just because you’re a plumber (as is a family member of mine, the one with the IQ that puts him far into the gifted range), or a carpenter or a mason, etc. doesn’t mean you can’t be/aren’t well-educated as well. Those are also jobs that can’t be outsourced overseas.

    Just as there are performing arts schools with (what should be) high quality academics, vocations and education should not be mutually exclusive.

    Obviously, if there’s tracking or assumptions or poor education given, that’s all wrong, but are you really saying that vocations are bad?

  7. Jen said it really well.

    Of course I’m aware of the shameful tradition of tracking the white kids into college prep and everyone else into vocational training. It has been during my own kids’ high school years, as I watched so many teens’ struggles with their lack of options — so many of them white middle-class — that I’ve really come to realize how badly mistaken it is to determine that all students must go to college, or they (and their K-12 schools) will be branded failures. Teens need flexibility and options, not rigid restrictions. And no other nation in the world has EVER tried to run an educational system that gave students only one option — college — or failure. Why would we think that’s a good idea?

    Obviously we need ensure that no student is EVER tracked based on the color of his/her skin, his gender or any other demographic characteristic. But cutting off options to ensure that that never happens is not a sound or logical response.

  8. Post

    Ladies, I completely agreed with Caroline’s statement through and through. It shows a depth and nuance I rarely get in conversations about race.

    I get the assumptions which is what I was also implying. I also don’t recall saying let cut off options. I was more saying that there are those (and of those there are many) who would prefer to limit the option of college and instead put certain people in the same job they believe certain kids should work.

    Now in my experience these suggestions often come from those who look at kids of color a certain way. Those who are well to do have the implicit option of asking for a vocational education whereas many parents of color are made to feel like vocation schools are the only option. That’s where I’m coming from. Nothing wrong with jobs that are labor intensive. I used to work one myself and so have family members. However it shouldn’t be the only option.

    I appreciate the sentiment still because these are experiences we can all grow from.

  9. Jose,
    I am very glad you made that distinction in your reply to Caroline. NYC is doing away with alternative trade schools and evening schools. Obama’s call that every student should go to college is just unrealistic. We have to recognize what the student wants ( instead of putting them through courses that could possibly lead to dropping out). I have never heard the call here from Liberals to place Blacks and Latinos in trade schools. In fact, it’s more the call for college. And many colleges are finding our students are not ready for college and have to offer remediation.

    Here is what I consider racist here in NY– Bringing in options like credit recovery and seat recovery just to increase graduation rates. Or putting students in coursework they are not prepared for and forcing teachers to find a way to pass them. Or when a teacher recommends a student for an advanced course because they are showing improvement and can handle the work, being told NO! When teachers try to get students programmed into the correct courses, they hit a brick wall.

    Every student has different goals and aspirations, and if it’s to become a plumber or electrician–it may turn out to be a very lucrative choice. Some want to go on to be hair and make-up stylists. Others want to enter the fire department or police department following in their family’s footsteps after high school. Taking away evening school does smack of racism because many students (from all races and cultures) have to drop out to help out their families meet financial concerns. Evening schools gave them hope to one day attend college or at least getting a job that requires a high school diploma. I grew up in an Italian-American community where students were either heading for college or were counting the days til graduation so they would never have to see another assignment again. While I agree, no one should be forced to go to a trade school, or be told that’s their only option, we need to support trade and evening schools. And in an economy where more MBAs and lawyers are out of work, trade schools need to tape into markets where there are economic opportunities.

  10. I call for vocational/technical/career education as part of K-12 education.

    The other pieces that are overlooked in the “all students must go to college” notion are the maze of the college admissions process and the financial aspect. There are a cross-section of options, but in many cases, financing college is the economic burden of a lifetime for families, second (possibly) to housing. Navigating the financial-aid/scholarship maze requires a lot of savvy and effort. Some students have reasonable access to community college and/or state college, but for those who don’t or who have other aspirations, navigating the application maze requires even more savvy and effort. Except for superhuman students who can work full-time and attend college, higher education means giving up years of wage-earning. It’s not easy.

  11. Dear Jose,

    There’s an interesting meta-conversation that goes on every time you write your nuanced stuff (which is pretty much every time you write)–the supratentorial conversation in white people’s heads, parsing words because, well, there’s a person of color in the room, and he talks in nuances. Makes for entertaining comment streams. (It’s here I’m supposed to mention I used to wield a shovel on the docks of Newark. I’m playing my role well, no?)

    All the more entertaining because most of the paler folk think no one knows this is going on. But here, people do, which gets to meta-meta-conversations….but that’s not the point today.

    The whole “it’s about socieconomics not race” card we hide behind is getting blown off the hinges as the economy for the lower 90% teeters towards the oblivion. Dollars to doughnuts the race/tribe/language issue is going to become all too popular again as more and more people scrabble to find work.

    There were times when my clan struggled a bit, and lived among others who were struggling a bit, too. And here’s a dirty little secret–people who know hurt tend to be a lot kinder than those who don’t. Those with the least, in my experience, share the most.

    Here’s the dirtier little secret. Hurt comes to us all eventually. But deathbed conversions hardly start to fix the wrecked lives left behind by the “highest” among us.

    Your post script attached is pure genius, and it’s a question we all have to tackle as we live out the rest of our days. I hope you continue to revisit this.

  12. Kate and Jose, thank you so much.

    That is exactly what I was trying to put into words and figure out for myself. What you say about teaching students to navigate the white middle-class world is what Ruby K. Payne says in one of her books about generational poverty. She says that education and individual determination are the only ways to break out of the cycle of poverty. It is a teacher’s job to help kids learn the rules of the middle-class and learn to speak in the middle class register in order to obtain postsecondary education and middle class jobs–“success”. She doesn’t go into matters of race or culture, though. I hadn’t really thought that through all the way.

    I have got to make sure that I am affirming my students’ culture and self-identity. I hadn’t thought about how I might actually be damaging them. I have got to recognize my underlying motivations and assumptions. I found this quote by Alan Alda a couple of weeks ago: ““Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.”

    Thank you again for helping me begin to work this out. It’s going to take a lot of work on my part.

  13. I think this is a really important conversation. It’s useful in its own right, and it invites us, as Kristi suggested, to examine some of our assumptions, or some of the terms in which we talk about these issues. For example, there are a lot of preconceptions and hidden expectations lurking behind concepts like “performance” and “opportunity” that could use some interrogation.

    I agree with a lot of the things that have been said here, though. I agree that tracking students into certain programs without regard for their background or desires is pernicious, and that “college for all” could be as destructive a position as “particular vocational programs for students with a certain profile.”

    However, I’d really like to speak to Ruby Payne’s appearance in this conversation. I appreciate that Kristi acknowledged some of Payne’s blind spots or limitations. I find a lot of her analyses and prescriptions extremely problematic, to say the least. I’d like to point out some of the ways I find her troubling, and maybe hear some of your reactions.

    I’ll start with the idea that “education and individual determination” are the “only ways to break out of the cycle of poverty.” Seems like the corollary is that a lack of education and individual determination are responsible for the perpetuation of a cycle of poverty. At the very least, it seems to me that if we’ve acknowledged the existence of systemic racism in society, we are obligated to deny that “individual determination” is an acceptable explanation for poverty. And while I absolutely agree that explaining outcomes by appeal to socioeconomic status without regard for race doesn’t capture the full story, I think it’s absurd to imply that education in and of itself can turn poverty to plenty. Do we accept that the more “successful” members of our society achieved their success solely due to their education and individual determination? If not, how did they get there? We must look to other structural factors: property distribution, inheritance and corporate law, and yes, racism.

    And racism is not just racial hatred. A system (of education, for example) can be racist without any one of its members having racial hatred. It might be, for example, that there’s an unspoken “white, urban, Western” preceding the term “middle-class rules.” What can it mean to affirm “students’ culture and self-identity” while insisting that one [proper, superior] culture must be internalized or at least outwardly adhered to? I read Payne as (probably unknowingly, but possibly not) perpetuating a very dangerous, short-sighted individualistic explanation and prescription for poverty. It is patronizing and belittling: “Poor people are sloppy and ignorant and violent–but it’s not their fault! They just haven’t learned to be like better people: middle class white people!”

    There are many more nuanced and productive analyses out there. bell hooks was mentioned–I suggest her “Class Matters”–and Peggy McIntosh’s “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” also has some interesting lessons and insights. I don’t mean to suggest that there is nothing we could critique about these resources, either, but I find them honest, intelligent, and sensitive approaches to the question. Payne’s I find dishonest, simplistic, and often mean-spirited.

    And I’ll call myself done for now. Thanks, y’all.

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  15. Post

    Michael, nuance is most important here. For instance, …

    Schoolgal, you’re probably not going to hear “White people” wanting “Black and Latino kids” going to different types of schools. They’ll just use coded language, and that’s often more seductive. Your points about credit recovery and the like are WELL taken. As is the rest of your comment, for that matter.

    David, wow. You hit it right on the nail with the “racism without racists” point, word to Dr. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva.

    This conversation is full of little nuggets. Thanks, everyone.

  16. David, I will need to examine some other sources besides Payne regarding education and its relationship with poverty. She is just presenting her personal observations and experience more than research. I was content to get a relatively simple prescription for poverty from her, darnit.

    Schoolgal and Jose, I teach in a night school credit recovery program. I have very mixed feelings about the whole thing, but I need a job and I love the students–ones who have dropped out in the past but have since seen the light and returned to earn their diploma. We have an administrative mandate to rocket them through the curriculum to get to the credits and the diploma. To maintain some sort of integrity, I work hard to determine the most vital elements of the courses and give students fully-focused, individual attention to get the highest quality work out of them that I can at an accelerated pace. But not all night school credit recovery teachers are as conscientious. When students “test out” of semester-long courses by taking a 6 minute multiple-choice test, I am disgusted. Teachers are required to give the students the option of “testing out”. I just create my own really difficult written tests that most students cannot possibly pass without learning the material. Then the students are mine for 4-8 weeks while they actually study and write and research. That’s how I’ve made my peace with it. But I won’t be able to do this more than another year or two before I return to regular, full-time day school teaching and do it the right way.

  17. as always you have quite the conversation stirring around these parts. don’t really have the energy to summon a legitimate response to issue of vocational schools and the like and the connotations behind they are built or advertised. I did get to read your poem brother. And I must say it was par excellent.. keep up the good work.. I heard some where that you are engaged.. if that is the case the congratulations.. piece and blessings.

  18. Even when we are “giving” everyone the same opportunity, education is not equal. I just checked some data–in my school, Black kids coming in with grades equal to or better than Asian and White ones never make it to AP classes. The system we have is seriously flawed and bright kids are being lost along the way. My own AP had the audacity to say at a meeting he would hire a black male teacher if he could find a good one. I have been fighting for change for years but no one seems to want to do anything about it. My last deed was to do an inquiry pinpointing these results. I hope and pray something comes of my efforts.

  19. Jose,
    I taught elementary school, so you are right about my not being part of that conversation. But I do know the changes Klein/Bloomberg put forth are hurting students and families when they close down evening school programs because it targets those that need it most or hires a chancellor because she has a great background in cocktail conversation.

    As for trade schools, growing up in an Italian neighborhood, I knew many students in my high school who took that route–including my own father. I also remember taking cooking and sewing in high school while the guys took woodworking and mechanics. Thankfully today those courses are open to all sexes. But getting back to “that conversation”, it is one that I had with my own parents. They wanted me to go to secretarial school and get a good job on Wall Street because back then secretaries got great Christmas bonuses. For their sake, I was a “commercial” student in high school who was also in academic honor classes. I worked during the day and on my own started community college at night. I was the first in my family to graduate college. Hopefully your students will also follow their own path.

    PS: Had I listened to my parents, I would be unemployed now. Luckily I was a rebellious child.

  20. I know that I come at this issue very much from the vantage point of issues in my district over the 20 years we’ve lived here.

    5+ years ago, with the advent of a Broad/Gates era, everything that is publicly touted here is…a lie. Programs have been gutted, but without it being made clear — no home economics or shop or any elective like that left in most schools — not at middle school or high school level for anyone. Music still offered but schools discouraging younger kids with low test scores from being involved.

    Smaller, specialized schools have been created and it doesn’t occur to people until later that those schools cannot provide a range of activities or sports or electives to the students. Vocational programs have been shut down one after another, or are “tweaked” so that they are aimed at entering college, rather than entering a profession, that is they end up being one or two “special classes” out of four years. Opportunities of all sorts are being shut down.

    We’re losing enrollment year after year and the district seems unconcerned by that.

    Over and over we hear about “college for all” and yet, I’ve known many people whose children who should qualifying (as Schoolgal points out) for AP and the labeled gifted classes who are not being told about it, let alone encouraged and supported. Parents have to ask (and know to ask), rather than guidance counselors looking out for these kids and getting them in the classes. The school that made more efforts towards including all interested kids was shut down and reformulated into a smaller school that has watered down the offerings for everyone and far fewer choices. Of course, their PR is the one thing that has been ramped up.

    At this point, everything I hear I just assume is the opposite of what is true. But people in my city? If all they do is read the paper, they think that everything is grand. They don’t see what had been a highly qualified, diverse staff of teachers and principals turning into a set of middle class white drones here to make a name for themselves by following the party line.

    Say that kids are being shortchanged, offered less, and learning less in this scripted, paced world and you’re treated to contempt — clearly that’s not happening, just read our press releases!

  21. You’re right. The history of vocational/alternative programs was steeped in racism. But the way they chose to fix that 30 years ago was to just get rid of the programs. Now we have kids that are not served properly. I wholeheartedly think that every kid SHOULD NOT GO to college. But I do believe that every kid should have the opportunity to take that pat. The tough question is….when does the decision need to be made that a path change is in order? Are we doing some kids a major disservice in that they leave 12 years of education and can’t do anything but ask if you want paper or plastic or fries with that? We can and must do better. And there are plenty of vocational paths that shouldn’t be looked down upon. My beautician makes more money than I do! My neighbor down the street has his own A/C repair business….he’s doing great! Why do we assume that you can’t be a productive and functioning member of society without college. It’s ridiculous. And in the process…students who shouldn’t go to school, who are spending thousands of dollar and time in REMEDIAL classes that don’t count towards a college degree because let’s just be real…..college has transcended being a place of higher learning and has become a BUSINESS and INDUSTRY unto itself.

    We must to better. I think it’s important to keep our minds focused on the racial issues that vocational and alternative education programs can bring, but I think we can’t let race coat the conversation so much that we are afraid to have it.

  22. Keishla is so right.

    I literally just came in from my hairstylist, who’s a personal friend, and we were talking about this.

    In my day, a lot of high schools offered hairstyling as a vocational class within the school. My friend says her high school gave her credit and one afternoon a week off to attend a local hairstyling/beauty school, for a one-year course that cost her $400. She says beauty schools are now $25,000/year.

    I think about other friends who have careers that didn’t require four years in college: an airline mechanic. A top-quality cabinetmaker. Several all-around carpenter/handypersons. A plumber (who is on everyone’s speed-dial in a very wealthy suburb here in the SF Bay Area). A property manager (her grandparents invested in non-luxurious but decent rental properties, and she now manages them for the family). Are these badges of shame? Does it make sense to just brand these skilled workers and their careers as failures because they don’t require four years of college?

  23. Maybe the problem (as Pissed Off has pointed out many times) is that administrators and guidance counselors should not be the only ones making decisions. When a teacher recommends a child for an advanced course, that recommendation should carry weight!! Perhaps the time has come for (dare I say) teacher input. I can tell you that the local middle school will only put students in honor classes if they scored well in both reading and math. During my meetings with the AP of the middle school to discuss my fifth grade class, I had to fight hard to get them to accept a student into honors because a child is worth more than a score. I also had a big problem with my best math students not being included in the honors math because of they still struggled with reading. Yet, they outscored my best reading students in math. Same goes for those who are better in ELA than math. So who makes up these ridiculous rules? The DoE? The school?

    Another big problem for me is my school’s TAG program where are only the best students are selected. We have so many students who are talented and are not being served because of their academics. I once taught in an elementary school where only the “good” kids got pulled out for violin. I got into many arguments with the violin teacher over this.

    If art, music, clothing design, interior decorating, hair styling, making furniture or just plain mechanics motivates a child, then we have to find a way to blend a well-rounded academics program around these talents. Then after graduation, these students will be able to attend Parsons, Pratt, FIT, dance academies etc. because we did not leave them unprepared academically. And as Caroline pointed out, we should be offering these courses at a lower cost.

    Again, the “conversation” needs revamping. And maybe the we need to start with the people who are included in the conversation. We should not be sending kids to trade schools who are not motivated by “the trade”. As an elementary school teacher I can tell you the most important part of the lesson was the “motivation”. Now, with so much “direct-instruction” and pretty boring lessons connected with the new curriculum, many new teachers are at a loss how to reinvent these lessons or adapt them to fit their students. The days are spent with blocked periods of math and ELA with very little time for music, art, poetry, etc. When I first started teaching, I found time to incorporate chess into my weekly lessons. Now every minute is accounted for by the powers that be. We need to find a way to make learning fun and build a lifetime of love for reading. Nobody seems to get that. It’s all about “the scores”.

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  25. Tracking is not the same as ability grouping, but because of tracking’s ugly history, ability grouping is taken to mean tracking. The result is mixed ability classrooms, and the so-called differentiated instruction, which amounts to students working in groups, and a lot of dumbed down projects. The elimination of tracking has resulted in a more insidious form of it. I wrote about this here:


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