A reflection on race, social justice, and education reform

My biggest takeaway from five years of teaching fifth grade in a South Bronx public school was this: much of what I had been taught about why my students struggled with reading comprehension and literacy was simply incorrect, and almost certainly doomed to fail.

There was no conspiracy at work. No impersonal forces lined up to keep the majority of my students—all of them black or brown; all of them low-income—achieving below grade level. And forget what you think you know about teacher incompetence, institutional indifference, or the malign effects of teachers unions. My school was, in the main, filled with earnest people trying hard and failing. Not despite their training, but because of it. Our efforts were praiseworthy, but insufficient because we were overlooking something essential.

The one man whose work accurately described what I was seeing in my classroom every day was E.D. Hirsch, Jr., of Cultural Literacy and Core Knowledge fame. What was odd, however, was that every time I would invoke his name in my grad school classes or in various professional development sessions, I’d hear some variation of this response: “Oh, that ‘dead white guy’ stuff? Nobody takes that seriously.”

If you’re familiar with Hirsch’s work you know it has nothing to do with dead white males. It’s about language proficiency and reading comprehension. About background knowledge and vocabulary development. It’s about curriculum. Most importantly, in Hirsch’s view—and in mine—it’s about social justice. It’s a means of ensuring that our least fortunate children have access to the enabling knowledge and vocabulary that is the foundation of language proficiency, critical thinking, problem solving, and every other big picture academic outcome we seek for our least advantaged children. While there is increasing appreciation for Hirsch’s insights, bolstered by a mountain of cognitive research, it’s important to recall that his work was once summarily dismissed (and sometimes still is) as the product of a conservative, even reactionary mind, even though Hirsch has described himself as “practically a socialist.”

I told this story to a group of two dozen or so of my fellow ed reformers last week at an American Enterprise Institute convening on “race, social justice, and school reform” because I wanted to make two simple (some will say simplistic) points: our expensive and aggressive ed reform efforts still focus far too little on what kids do in school all day; and we don’t all have the same ideas about what it means to serve the cause of social justice—or whether it is even appropriate to place social justice issues at the heart of our efforts to improve outcomes for kids. It should be enough to seek the same ends; we needn’t agree on the means to achieve them.

I had no grand expectations for the meeting. To their credit, neither did Rick Hess of AEI or Stacey Childress of New Schools Venture fund, who organized the day. It was enough to listen to a variety of views on sensitive subjects, and model the kind of civil discourse we seek in others. But at the end of it all I still found myself wanting as much as possible to push the conversation towards classrooms, not away. Toward professional practice, not beliefs and dispositions. Toward the things, as Teach For America likes to tell its corps members, “within our locus of control.”

By no means do I wish to suggest indifference to issues of race, immigration, policing, or housing. Nor am I naïve enough not to recognize the broader contexts in which we educate children. Yet it remains unclear to me why a field that has produced decades of mediocrity, or a reform movement that has moved the needle on student outcomes far too little, believes it has the status and moral authority to be taken seriously on these broader issues. Moreover, if we believe that social ills and structural racism make improving outcomes impossible, then we are tacitly acknowledging—are we not?—that reform critics have been right all along, that the key to improving educational outcomes is to fix poverty first.

So I hope I will be forgiven, although I’m certain I will not be, for wanting the full force of reform efforts to focus on what happens inside of schools and classrooms. On what teachers teach and what students learn. It may not be very satisfying to march in the streets shouting “Tier Two Vocabulary Matters!” but it matters quite a lot.

In a column in U.S. News that deserved more attention than it got, Andy Rotherham recently observed how far removed the world of teaching and learning has become to those of us who spend our time flapping our jowls on panels, blogging, drafting policy briefs, and beating each other bloody on social media as if the fate of the republic depended on our next Tweet. “Kids sometimes come up, but it's usually in the context of someone asking how yours are,” he wrote. Andy is right.

Here’s the story I should have told at the AEI conference. On Inauguration Day I found myself in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, with Paul Pastorek, a legendary state and national reform figure. We sat down for lunch in a local joint that has fed folks who work at a pair of local oil refineries and their families for generations. It was impossible to eat three forkfuls of chicken and potatoes without someone pulling him away to talk or to meet some local official. One thing led to another and we found ourselves spending the rest of the afternoon, unplanned and unexpectedly, at Chalmette High School, which has a popular and successful theatre and performing arts program that touches six hundred students a year, one-third of the entire student body. Our tour guide was a forty-year veteran teacher named Charles Cassar, who couldn’t wait to show us the rehearsal spaces, dance studios, and the high school’s two magnificent theatres—all of it in the last place you’d look for them, smack in the middle of a blue-collar refinery town that took the hardest blow dealt by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Great teachers are storytellers, and Cassar had an endless supply. But one stuck with me: Many years ago, he was teaching world history and reviewing the Renaissance for a big test. “One of my kids puts his hand up and says, ‘Mr. Cassar, I don’t get it. Does God not make Michaelangelos or Leonardo DaVincis any more?’” Cassar was dumbstruck, but the question, he now says, changed his life. “That’s when I realized God is still making those kids. But what are we doing to develop them?” We were standing on part the answer to that kid’s question—the stage of Chalmette High School’s magnificent theatre—far from the swearing-in ceremony and the scene of the next day’s massive protests, far from the world of ed reform conferences, blogs, policy briefs, and Tweets. Mr. Cassar’s question is the question. What are we doing to develop them?

When I thought about Mr. Cassar and his student after the AEI meeting on race, social justice, and school reform, I realized I didn’t know if that student was black or white. It hadn’t occurred to me to ask.

Robert Pondiscio
Robert Pondiscio is a Senior Fellow and the Vice President for External Affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.