When Were We Ever Indivisible? [A Reflection on NYC Schools Chancellor Carranza]

A newspaper in the city recently reported that nine New York City councilmembers have called for NYC schools chancellor Richard Carranza’s firing, saying he’s more focused on “ethnicity instead of efficacy” and prefers to pound the pavement with his “rhetoric.” Since stepping into the role of chancellor, Carranza has intrigued observers of education reform with a bevy of questions, a series of managerial realignments, and a ramp-up of equity and cultural competence talk. He’s even poked the multi-headed hydra we call “gifted and talented,” shaking the rafters of our specialized high schools.

As a 14-year classroom teacher, I struggle with the moment we’re in with respect to our schools. For most – if not all – of my career, education reformers who considered themselves leftist would tout market-based solutions as the revolution necessary to assure our kids an adequate education. They too would use rhetoric that felt inflammatory, but the press coverage often kneeled because the mayor at the time was a billionaire media magnate and supporters felt comforted with shifting the blame towards communities in need of reinforcements for this centuries-long battle for a quality education. Discussing equity is in vogue in education and I perhaps played a part in this movement. Yet, I see how anyone can post the word “equity” to mean anything they want it to mean.

I believe Carranza can actually explain in depth what equity means to him, and that’s turned the usual skeptics into fans.

For a small window of time, we have a chancellor willing to speak directly to the elephants in the halls around him, a mayor who gives him the space to forcefully move forward with an equity agenda, and a wide array of students, parents, educators, and other concerned citizens who see the products of their work come to fruition in their representatives. The lies our city tells itself about wanting change without changing itself have frustrated even the strongest of us. Our city, the diverse colossus, cannot muster the courage to see its own institutions as splintered, underresourced, and racist in its functions.

Also, this city has a few people angry at a chancellor willing to point out what’s been evident to observers both near and far. That is to say, we’ve been divided, and there’s no clearer sign of that divide than in our schools.

It’s not just the Specialized High Schools in need of transformation, either. We’re divided when some of our schools have balanced numbers of students across demographic lines, but the gifted and talented programs have all the white students and all of the special education and slower-tracked corridors have mostly people of color, especially black kids. We’re divided when our false options lead frustrated Black and Brown parents to stand in 100° weather for a lottery and when they don’t get in, they feel like they’ve failed twice by going to their local public schools. We’re divided when white parents merely shrug when they don’t get into schools of their choice and pay thousands of dollars to get their children into the private schools of their choice all while divesting from their schools.

We’re divided when our public schools still allow for some folks to get their individual child personalized attention based on the whims of a parent’s influence and finances. We’re divided when we pretend racial attitudes don’t influence our students’ experiences in the classroom based on the color of their skin, their phenotypes, and the neighborhoods in which they reside. We’re divided when white students still rarely see teachers of color in their core classes and when children of color know their teachers will probably leave in a couple of years for any number of reasons. We’re divided when we’ve ingested so much of the poverty narrative that we don’t make way for the brilliance of our Black and Brown children that don’t conform to the hegemonic demonstrations of said brilliance.

We’re divided as we have been for decades. Kumbaya never really made it to the hood.

My years of experience with Chancellors Klein, Black, Walcott, and Fariña tell me that it’s important to remain critical of folks in power, even if folks we agree with wield said power. Folks who’ve read this blog know I don’t shy away even as I know they employ me. For one, there’s still hundreds of us who wished the equity and culturally-relevant pedagogy had reached our superintendents and administrators. There’s still an overemphasis on outdated and debunked visions that our higher-ups still tout. Awful interpretations of the Danielson framework and favoritism still persist in our schools as well. In other words, one man alone, or even a cabinet full of Black and Brown folks won’t solve all of our city’s problems in a couple of years.

However, the pushback to Carranza’s insistence on naming what’s visible strikes me as a moment of awakening for his critics. He called himself a man of color and people clutched their imaginary pearls. He makes the leadership reflect the racial diversity of the city and people want to sue. He plays music with the kids and people confuse him with a clown. This all says that they’re not actually listening to the people they purport to serve or have digested too many of the infomercials disguised as TV shows and movies advertising the strength of NYC. Our strong, wrong, and fragile critics prefer the system that works as intended, not the way that might actually look unified.

How can anyone aspire to structural change and not speak to the roots underneath the foundation? Without bringing up massacres, when was NYC ever indivisible? When?