In the late 1980s and early 1990s, responding to a wave of violence sweeping through urban America, educators of color began proposing that public schools transform their pedagogy to enhance the self esteem and historical understanding of young people in the hardest hit communities. They called for the transformation of social studies curricula to incorporate more Black and Latino history, for the creation of new public schools in which Black and Latino history were integral parts of the school culture, for the development of strategies to recruit more Black and Latino teachers, especially from communities that were most at risk.
There was a tremendous amount of energy and idealism accompanying this vision of Urban Education, and controversy as well. Supporters claimed these measure were necessary to save a generation of youth at risk; critics claimed they would intensify racial divisions, promote hostility to white teachers and administrators and, in the most extreme cases, undermine patriotism and national unity.
Fierce debates about such strategies occurred all through the 90s, but by the time George W Bush had taken office, the critics had largely won the day. When No Child Left Behind was passed, its architects decided to base their vision of compliance and equity entirely on conformity to National Standards, which allowed little if any adaptation to community traditions. The same approach was incorporated, in even more restrictive form, by
Barack Obama’s “Race to the Top,” which called for mandatory closing of schools that did not perform well on standardized tests as a condition for receiving federal grants. Not only were inner city schools not rewarded or honored for adapting pedagogy to the cultural traditions of the communities they were located in, they were penalized for doing so if their efforts did not raise scores on standardized tests.
The rise of “standardization” as the centerpiece of national education policy had a powerful impact on the charter school movement, which in its early stages had proponents who tried to create schools incorporating community centered pedagogy, and went out of their way to try to recruit teachers and administrators of color. With startling rapidity, charters with that approach began losing ground, and most importantly, losing funding, to charter chains such as K.I.P.P., and Success Academies, which saw student test scores on standardized tests as the centerpiece of their pedagogy and actually preferred inexperienced white teachers with little connection to the communities they taught in to veteran teachers of color who were the dominant teaching staffs in neighborhood public schools.
Worse yet, the example of these charter chains was used as a sword for policymakers to hold over the head of public school administrators, warning them that unless they followed this model of pedagogy and teacher training, they were likely to see their schools closed and their jobs eliminated.
By the time of Barack Obama’s second term in office, community-centered pedagogy was so out of favor that no local school board in any major city dared promote it. High test scores on standardized exams, preferably those incorporating the Common Core standards, were to be the sole measure of education equity anyone would take seriously.
Perhaps it is time to revisit “the path not taken.” Punitive standardization has not promoted education equity, not in New Orleans, not in New York, not in Washington DC, not anywhere. It has not inspired students, it has not empowered teachers, it has not given families stronger connections to their neighborhoods.
Perhaps it is time to bring back community history and recruit teachers and principals who see neighborhood cultures and traditions as an asset to their work rather than an obstacle to overcome in the pursuit of “standardization.”
With A Brooklyn Accent