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Historical Background

“The teacher is of course an artist but being an artist does not mean that he or she can make the profile, can shape the students. What the educator does in teaching is to make it possible for the students to become themselves”.

‒Paulo Freire, We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change

Parents and educators in low-income communities have a long history of concern related to the quality of education children receive in under-resourced and racially zoned public schools, so that citywide strikes occurred in New York during 1968 which exploded out of an activist nucleus in Brownsville, Brooklyn. Fueled by a demand for autonomy, community activists took a stance against the United Federation of Teachers’ (“UFT”) support of white teachers who were concerned with job protection and due process, over the desire of parents of minority students who sought control of schools. This schism originated out of several politically and socially charged frameworks, related to parents’ desire to achieve school integration and community control, and the UFT’s goal to maintain complete control over staffing, job tenure, work rules, and classroom practices in all City school districts. According to noted education author Herbert Kohl, through his work with the Parent Planning Board at I.S. 201, “many of the teachers at I.S. 201 were cynical and racist toward their students, such that students were not reading or doing math exercises” (Kohl 429). The conditions that created the desire for community control originated out of longstanding racial constructs that failed to deliver quality education to minority communities, including through the choice of school leadership. In this instance, parents had been promised an integrated school but were highly disappointed when integration at I.S. 201 was realized at 50% black, 50% Puerto Rican and a white principal. These factors, together with inadequately resourced schools, caused contention between parents and central boards that were also opposed by some educators, and many parents (Kohl 429). Hostilities grew out of racist ideologies that insisted that black and brown students “needed to learn middle class values, rather than the study of their cultural norms which were perceived as deficit cultural poverty” (Opler et al. 4), which evidenced the racist practices of some educators. According to Associate Professor of History Jerald Podair, recommendations in the 1966 report Equality of Educational Opportunity situated low student achievement in accordance with the culture of poverty theory that positioned black culture as “rejections of, or indifference to dominant values, so that children needed to be acclimated to the values of the larger white middle class” (Podair 55). Issues of racism matter because this segregated community came to exemplify dichotomies of difference related to social class inequality, and poverty, that according to Professor of Environmental History, Philosophy, and Ethics Carolyn Merchant, were supported through restrictive zoning[1] that bound up minorities into racialized communities. The salient point of zoning was to effectively segregate communities such that zoning became an effective districting exclusionary mechanism, not only in New York City but in minority communities across the country. Although the practice of zoning is “commonly controlled by local governments to designate legal areas in a municipality to permit and prohibit land uses” (“Zoning”), in 1968, there were many devices implemented to restrain individuals from enjoying the use of land including through “restrictive covenants, racial steering, blockbusting, redlining, and discriminatory lending” (Taylor Figure 7.1). These measures supported segregation and evinced a normalcy of substandard conditions so that minority children were and continue to be siloed into negative ethos’ in learning that normalizes their educational experiences to include tracking practices, drilling exercises, detentions and expulsions, which situated these communities as centers for underachievement.

Researchers Bowman, Barnett, Johnson and Reeve correlated the relationship between underachievement and under-resourcing in their study concerning language impairment and academic deficiencies, citing the research of Kagan who opined that “inner city communities are often impoverished” (Bowman et al. 217). These experiences describe a reality that separates lower income minority students from qualitative educational experiences that are generally available to higher socioeconomic students. Data culled by the National Center for Education Statistics in a U.S. Department of Education study in 2005, posit that “69% of fourth graders were below proficiency in reading, 68% were below proficiency in mathematics, and 72% were below proficiency in writing” (Bowman et al. 216). The realities of minimal incomes often do not allow low socioeconomic families to lend support to activities outside of normal budgetary needs, as do their more affluent counterparts. The reality of poverty essentially reifies obstacles in learning, as it adversely impacts the provisioning of qualitative experiences via a lack of “access to financial capital that is needed for physical resources, and to human capital that provides support for cognitive environments to aid learning” (Coleman S109). The impact of racial constructs on education is demonstrably apparent when the incomes and earnings of lower socioeconomic families in minority communities are not sufficient to meet their child’s needs. These factors positioned student learning to be impacted by racial strife and a continued stratification of minority students and their parents, which led to the UFT teachers strike in 1968, leaving schools under the control of the state which took over districts, but did not provide additional resources beyond Federal Title I funding. Taken in context with future initiatives that were adopted as the Nation’s educational standards three decades later, students of minority communities remain similarly disadvantaged as punitive accountability measures and under-resourced schools disenfranchise them from acquiring increased levels of achievement, by diminishing the quality and quantity of learning across broad subject areas.

Under the Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind (“NCLB”) and the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top (“RTTT”), there emerged a neoliberal suite of bipartisan school policies based on the notion that “schools would improve if they were forced to compete, and that merit pay would motivate educators to reduce under-achievement. This approach to reframing education was supported by the practice of utilizing uncredentialled teachers because privatizers devalued the role of seasoned educators under the notion that educators work did not raise test scores” (Ravitch, Reign of Error 17–18). These federal programs which were funded by foundation grants paved the way for privatization and charter programs in school districts. Because pedagogical practices became test-centered and tech oriented, this diminutive and restrictive approach to learning created a disservice to curricula as student-centered interactive projects which are at the heart of the development of literacy became void in K-12 classrooms.

[1] In Shades of Darkness: Race and Environmental History, Carolyn Merchant asserts that after the Civil War cities began constructing themselves by increased racial divisions that were organized through zoning which occurred simultaneously with the enactment of Jim Crow laws. http://envhis.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/doi/10.2307/3986200, p385.