Honored to have Rann Miller return to share his latest (you can read his first post on data-driven approaches to hiring teachers of color here):

When it comes to education reform where Black and Brown children are concerned, I always ask one simple question: are the best interests of Black and Brown students top priority? In particular, this question frames the way I look at the charter v. traditional public school debate. As a Black educator, I find myself between a rock and a hard place because as the Black experience in America has taught me, you can never put your complete faith in one method for righting the wrongs of systemic racism. Throughout our history as a people, we’ve fought from both the inside and outside the political and justice systems to achieve progress. Leaders from various eras chose their side from which to fight, but the simultaneous efforts made from both sides has made the most difference; in my opinion.

When I observe the conversation over charter v. traditional public schools, I see grey where others see only black and white. The state of New Jersey has all but given up on educating Poor people of color; choosing to outsource their education in Camden, Trenton and Newark to independent management organizations that may or may not be not for profit. This paradigm shift poses an equal opportunity for progress and peril. Charter schools provide an opportunity for people of color to create their own institutions of public education.[1] For example, there are existing charter organizations, created and led by Black people, that have used charter laws to facilitate the education of Black children with an Afrocentric curriculum that is culturally affirming. Critics cite the failures of these schools to produce results in the form of standardized test scores. However, I would argue that it is reasonable to assume that Afrocentric schools will not measure up to nor align with Eurocentric standards.[2] The majority of charter organization are not created or led by people of color. Many of these organizations and schools, created and led by White people, are built on teaching poor students of color compliance, conformity and standardized test proficiency. While White people are capable of teaching children of color, race matters in the classroom.[3] Many of these schools, like traditional public schools, are founded on the “Protestant ethic;” a set of values that emphasize the importance of hard work and no excuses.[4] However, there is not always room for restorative justice in an atmosphere of no excuses.[5]  State governments deserve responsibility for failing to adequately educate poor children of color. However, charter organizations, as a whole, have not proven to be the best of educational alternatives for poor children of color.[6]

Equally important to finding a macro-level solution to the crisis of underperforming city schools is finding a micro-level solution. That starts with adequately preparing teachers to teach children of color in poor neighborhoods. Many of these teachers are Ill-prepared to teach in urban and inner-city schools. They are unfamiliar with the cultural apparatus of the neighborhoods where they work. Also, many of these teachers are White; their privilege and biases contribute to their unfamiliarity with people of color. In response, the call has been for traditional districts and charter organizations to hire and train Black teachers. In my previous posts to this blog, I have echoed similar calls.[7] Enter the Relay Graduate School of Education to the urban education reform fray. Relay is not a tradition school of education graduate program, yet it works with more than fifty school districts nationwide and is licensed to grant degrees in nine states, including New Jersey.[8] Relay was recently awarded a contract to train new teachers in Philadelphia, and it is already training teachers in Camden.[9] There are those that believe Relay is a great choice for teacher education and there are those who do not. Again, I reference the question I mentioned at the start of this document… are the best interests of those students the top priority? The answer isn’t as black or white as some think.

Traditional teacher education programs at predominately White institutions (PWIs) aren’t the best at recruiting and training prospective teachers of color.[10] Over 70% of Relay students in the Philadelphia-Camden region are teachers and teacher candidates of color.[11] Also, Relay has received kudos from the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education. However, Relay isn’t a collaborative effort between charter and traditional public school folks. What concerns me is the high number of Black and Latino teacher candidates being instructed in an organization founded as a collaborative effort of three charter schools and their predominately White leadership teams[12]: Uncommon Schools (Norman Atkins), KIPP (David Levin), and Achievement First.[13] KIPP,[14] Uncommon[15] and Achievement First[16] are each of the no-excuses philosophy. On the topic of the no-excuses philosophy, Columbia University professor Christopher Emdin said, “There is a false attachment between being complicit and docile to being academically rigorous.”[17] If “no-excuses” is at the forefront of Relay’s instruction to a group of students who largely consist of Black and Latino teachers, that is a serious problem. Black and Latino teachers are tired of being sought after by such schools to be disciplinarians that dispense “tough love” naturally and in culturally appropriate ways. To make that your focus and ignore the systemic racism found in the institution of the American public school, your organization is doomed to maintain the status quo you self-righteously claim to break. You will lose those teachers of color as fast as you found them.[18]

I will not go as far as to say that the Relay school is the worst thing to happen to urban education; I am not as familiar with the program as others may be. However, I have real concerns in regards to how they are instructing Black and Brown teachers to teach Black and Brown children. When people apply “broken-windows” logic and catch phrases like “grit” and “no-excuses” to students, they never apply that logic to or use those phrases for White children in the suburbs. I think it is fair to hypothesize that the instructional methods taught to Relay students are urban and inner-city school specific. It is equally safe to reason that the passion and desire of teachers of color to teach and mentor children of color, and their real concern for their safety in the world, can be exploited to achieve the end of control and compliance in the name of test score proficiency. According to its website, Relay’s vision is to become the place where a new generation of continuously-improving, results-focused individuals can fulfill their destiny in the world’s greatest profession.[19] Does the spirit of that vision put the best interests of Black and Brown students as their top priority? Graduation and work retention rates don’t tell us… only time will tell. In the meantime, we must all do as the ancestors advised the Black community down through the years; watch and pray.

Rann Miller is director of a 21st Century Community Learning Center; a federally funded after-school program located in southern New Jersey. He is a former classroom teacher of 6 years in charter schools located in Camden, New Jersey. He is the author of the Urban Education Mixtape Blog (https://urbanedmixtape.com). He can be followed on twitter at @UrbanEdDJ

[1] This is not to be confused with the miscalculation of Betsy DeVos who claimed that the creation of historically Black colleges and universities were a reaction to dissatisfaction with American public schools in the nineteenth century.

[2] http://prospect.org/article/afrocentric-education-crisis

[3] https://www.theroot.com/how-race-matters-in-the-classroom-1790893823

[4] Silver, Joel. Deculturalization and the Struggle for Equality. 7th. New York: McGraw Hill, 2013.

[5] Golann, Joanne, W. (2015) “The Paradox of Success at a No Excuses School.” Sociology of Education 88:2:103-19

[6] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/21/us/blacks-charter-schools.html

[7] https://danley.camden.rutgers.edu/2017/01/31/a-data-driven-approach-to-hiring-more-black-male-teachers-by-randy-miller/; https://danley.camden.rutgers.edu/2017/03/17/have-you-considered-an-hbcu-when-recruiting-prospective-black-male-teachers-by-randy-r-miller/

[8] https://www.philly.com/philly/education/SRC-hires-teacher-prep-program-over-protests.html

[9] Ibid.

[10] http://hechingerreport.org/college-ed-programs-try-fail-recruit-teachers-color/

[11] https://www.philly.com/philly/education/SRC-hires-teacher-prep-program-over-protests.html; https://phillys7thward.org/2017/05/anyone-stand-relay-graduate-school-education-opportunity-effective-teachers-color/

[12] I visited all three schools websites to see their leadership team. While the leadership team at Uncommon schools didn’t post pictures of their leadership team, KIPP and Achievement First did – the vast majority of leaders (and primarily all of its school leaders) are White.

[13] http://educationnext.org/a-new-type-of-ed-school/

[14] https://www.alternet.org/education/work-hard-be-hard-how-kipps-no-excuses-model-fails-students-and-teachers-alike

[15] http://thinkprogress.org/inside-a-charter-school-that-enforces-a-culture-of-compliance-f8b7ff4356ec

[16] https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/08/11/schools-that-accept-no-excuses-from-students-are-not-helping-them/?utm_term=.529bfbb8134d

[17] http://thinkprogress.org/inside-a-charter-school-that-enforces-a-culture-of-compliance-f8b7ff4356ec

[18] https://edtrust.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/A-Look-at-Black-Student-Success.pdf.

[19] https://www.relay.edu/about/approach


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