From Massa to Messiah: The Problem with Education Reform

By Jenene

YUV Contributor Jenene
YUV Contributor Jenene

I recently read an interesting article on education reform in the Washington Post, titled, “The education-reform movement is too white to do any good.” It was a very interesting article, and, quite frankly, the title does a good job of explaining, both, the contents of the article and the position of the author. But for those who aren’t too familiar with the education reform movement or why anyone would be critical of it, allow me to explain.

It’s no secret that our educational system is broken. With the average American reading at a seventh grade level and many of our science, engineering, and technology jobs being shipped overseas, with American candidates unable to compete in the global market, it’s clear that there’s a problem, a BIG problem. This problem, however, didn’t just appear out of thin air; we’ve been dealing with it for a while. In the late 1950s, the U.S. was embarrassed on the international stage when Russia beat the U.S. by being the first country to launch a satellite in space. Ordinarily, this might not have been such a big deal, but the U.S. and Russia were at each other’s throats in a silent conflict known as the Cold War. So, essentially, the U.S. was bested by its greatest enemy at the time, which was not a good look.
Consequently, changes were put into effect and out came the reforms in education with science, math, engineering, and technology being at the top of the list.

Today, the same thing is happening. People aren’t buying American products. American students are less marketable in the global economy and seem less prepared when compared to their international counterparts. We’ve all heard the stories about how American students get summers off and attend school for less hours than students in Asia, Africa, and other parts of the world. We get it; we’re behind. There is, however, another part of the story that’s not being as heavily advertised in the media.

Although the entire American educational system is broken and behind in the world market, educational reform is largely confined to inner city schools, where most of the students are Black and Brown. Outside of huge changes in curriculum, such as the movement towards Common Core, most of these educational reforms and reformists, such as Teach for America and other like programs, have been largely pushed on inner schools, students, and communities. Because of this, the perception in America is that only our inner city schools need reform, while such is not the case. Even Hollywood plays a role in fostering this perception with movies such as Dangerous Minds and Freedom Writers. We’ll address that later.

Some may read this and think, “What’s the big deal? If these inner city schools need help, then they should be happy about these reform programs, right?” Wrong. The problem isn’t so much about what is being proposed but more about how it is being implemented. It seems like most of the people making the decisions for what’s best for these communities seem to be people outside of them. As such, the educational reform movement conjures up images of American and European imperialism. Think of the British coming to America and attempting to convert the Native Americans to their rules, their culture, and their norms. Imagine Europeans carving up sections of Africa, the Caribbean, and South America and converting the natives and taking over with no respect for the pre-existing culture(s).

If you can imagine these scenarios then you have a good idea for how educational reform looks in the American inner cities. Schools are closed without input from the community, and when new charters schools are opened, the faculty and administration is filled with people who have no cultural connection or respect for the communities in which they serve. Instead, these educational reformers seem to take on the same attitudes as western missionaries, even at times referring to the schools and communities as the mission field. The attitude, here, is that they are, indeed, messianic figures commissioned to save these Black and Brown communities from their own self-imposed destruction. This is the same image that is portrayed in the aforementioned movies, where we have poor and dejected inner city students who are unable to perform with no one who cares about them. Suddenly, the educational reformer, who happens to be White and from outside of the community, appears to save the day and raise student test scores and overall achievement. These attitudes are ignorant, at best, and extremely racist, at worst. And because of the attitudes and corresponding actions of educational reformists, inner city communities of color have lost respect and trust for the entire educational reform movement. The result is that the intent of the movement is lost in its implementation, which is sad because our schools do need help.

Part of the problem is a belief that these communities lack the skills and knowledge to solve their own issues in education, when such may not be the case. Our inner cities don’t lack the knowledge; they lack the resources and the access. So if organizations are truly interested in educational reform, perhaps they should support the community’s version of it and allow them greater access to resources and funding that would help them without imposing imperialistic stipulations. The Washington Post article made a statement that I believe perfectly captures the point of this article. In the article, Dr. Perry states, “We need less ‘reform’ and more social justice.” My sentiments, exactly.


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