I Missed You, Lisa Delpit: School Culture and Race

mudI think it’s important to follow up a crazed love letter to an author and his brother with a brief discussion of race relations in the classroom.  (?!)

In Boot Camp for Kiddies this week, Diane Ravitch posts a criticism (and later a response) of the top-down, overly harsh management styles of certain charter schools, in specific those of Achievement First. Without mentioning specifics, Rafe Esquith named the same problem back in 2008. Ironic, since much of KIPP based their model on the letter– if not the spirit– of Rafe’s own classroom management… and then other charters built their models based on KIPP. It’s a lesson in following ideas back to their sources: often the quality of mercy is strained, shall we say.

That being said, the unexamined idea that a common school culture is racist has still always bugged me. In whatever form, involving whatever claim, it can be a seven-layer bean dip of presuppositions: that a culture imposed by privileged whites is inherently disrespectful to students who are not of the same race or class. That a common school culture is uniformly imposed by privileged whites. That a common school culture is uniformly imposed only by privileged whites. That authoritarian approaches to teaching are racist. That constructivist approaches to teaching are racist.

With all that rhetorical juicy goodness going on, why not just say that if a teacher is not teaching a classroom of 24 clones of herself, she is a racist?

(What? Someone did? Not really, as you can see. But wouldn’t it be a quick and easy jump from here?)

The muddiness kills me. So we kill the muddiness by getting our facts straight: and (Irony #2) acknowledging the muddiness within the facts.

My first thought up0n reading the Ravitch post was to brush up on the work I most trust on education and race relations, which would be that of Lisa Delpit, Peggy McIntosh, and Gloria Ladson-Billings. I did this with a strictly defined, peer-reviewed search on Google that was at least several minutes long. (But seriously, if anyone knows anything that can be added to what I was able to glean, please put it in the comments. Whole point I’m writing the post, really.)

Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, in her usual admirable straightforwardness, does not screw around with whether charter schools and their systems are racist, but goes right to whether children of color should be waiting in line, or in a lottery, for a quality education in the first place. In this fabulous blog piece, she even plays with the idea that we would be better off today with (Irony #4) “a real Plessy than a fake Brown,” concluding simply: “We must guarantee all students and their families an equal opportunity to learn.”

I didn’t turn up any direct commentary by Dr. McIntosh on charter schools, but did find an interesting article on how several “innovation schools” (basically charters) in Massachusetts have adopted the “Open Circle” learning program that her organization, The Wellesley Centers for Women, developed specifically to train kids in supportive collaboration. Which points up messiness/Irony #5: that while Dr. Ravitch and others castigate charters schools as de facto segregators of education, it is the infrastructural freedoms afforded charter schools that often allow them to take on programs like Open Circle that dig up the roots of prejudice itself.

Finally, it turns out I completely missed the publication of Dr. Delpit’s latest book just last year, Multiplication is for White People, so I’ve fixed that with One-Click Amazon and will report on it accordingly. Lisa Delpit, as Tom Hoffman comments here, puts across her arguments “with a certain weight of moral and intellectual authority which is unique to her,” and so I am eager to see where she goes in the book– particularly as she is arguably the mother of the idea that the dominant culture of power needs to be explained, and its rules taught, to students of color.

And I imagine, in the final irony of this post, that this is exactly what Achievement First would say they are doing.


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