Education Reformers and “The New Jim Crow”

school hallwayIf somebody told me, 15 years ago — when I was spending many of my days working with community groups in the Bronx and East New York dealing with the consequences of the crack epidemic — that you could solve the problems of neighborhoods under siege by insulating students in local schools from the conditions surrounding them and devoting every ounce of teachers energies to raising their test scores, I would have said “what planet are you living on?”

Students were bringing the stresses of their daily lives into the classroom in ways that no teacher with a heart could ignore, and which created obstacles to concentrating in school, much less doing their homework, that people living in middle class communities couldn’t imagine. To be effective in getting students to learn, teachers had to be social workers, surrogate parents, and neighborhood protectors as well as people imparting skills, and at times, the interpersonal dimensions of their work were more important than the strictly instructional components.

Now, such thinking is considered a form of educational heresy. The leaders of the Education Reform movement — from Secretary Arne Duncan, to the head of Teach for America, to Michelle Rhee to the heads of almost every Urban School System — regard any discussion of neighborhood conditions as an impediment to the quest to achieve educational equity. Instead, they demand that teachers shut out the conditions they are living in and inspire, prod, and discipline their charges to achieve results on standardized tests that match those of their middle class counterparts living in more favorable conditions.

But the position they are taking — that schools in depressed areas can be radically improved without doing anything to improve conditions in the neighborhoods they are located in — flies in the face of the common sense of anyone who lives or works in such communities. It represents a form of Collective Madness!

michelle alexander

Michelle Alexander

The idea that an entire urban school system (not a few favored schools) can be uplifted strictly through school-based reforms, whether it is eliminating teacher tenure, or replacing public schools with charter schools, without changing ANY of the conditions driving people further into poverty is contrary to anyone’s lived experience and has, in fact, never been accomplished anywhere in the world!

Let me break down for what the “No Excuses” approach to School Reform means in common sense terms.

Basically, reformers propose to raise test scores, and radically improve graduation rates in entire urban schools systems without doing anything to

  • Reduce homelessness, residential instability and housing overcrowding as a factor in student’s lives.
  • Deal with hunger, poor diet, and obesity as factors impeding education performance.
  • Challenge racial profiling and police violence in student’s lives, not only in their neighborhoods, but in the schools.
  • Deal with unemployment, underemployment, and wage compression as factors in the lives of students and their families.
  • Deal with the impact of the prison industrial complex on students and their families, particularly the psychic and economic stress of having close relatives in prison and having them unemployable when they leave.
  • Deal with the trauma of domestic violence and peer violence as it impacts student’s lives and their educational performance.
  • Deal with the way students are profiled by police, storeowners and ordinary citizens when they leave their neighborhoods and go into downtown business districts or middle class neighborhoods.

Essentially, Reformers are asking everyone involved with schools in under-resourced communities — especially teachers and administrators — to block out all the conditions that Michelle Alexander has highlighted in her book The New Jim Crow. Not only will this approach fail miserably, it gives a free pass to economic and political elites whose policies helped create the very conditions that lock people into poverty.

No wonder billionaires love this policy. It takes the onus off them for concentrating so much of the nation’s wealth in the top 1 Percent of the population. No wonder politicians love it. It absolves them of responsibility for building the largest prison system in the advanced world and filling it with poor people and people of color and creating huge police forces and drug enforcement policies that assure such prisons are filled.

mark naisonEssentially, current school reform policies represent a brilliant tactic to avoid dealing with the real causes of poverty and inequality in society, while finding a convenient scapegoat in public school teachers and their unions.

It is transparent, ill-considered, and immoral. And over time, as its true character is revealed, people of the communities most targeted by these reforms will rise up in protest against policies which discourage them from organizing to improve their communities and their lives.

Mark Naison
With a Brooklyn Accent


  1. JoeWeinstein says

    Mark omits a huge factor that would strengthen his argument against the notion that what passes for school ‘reform’ could possibly be a panacea.  (To be sure, the omitted factor might be somewhat embarrassing to Mark himself as well as to the rest of educationist academe.) He omits to note the all-too-common lack of sufficient parental support – not only when parents are un- or under-employed but indeed when they are fully employed:  lack of time is as crippling as lack of money. 

    Home support is crucial, because of the faulty late-19-th and 20-th century working premise which underlies almost all schools (public or private, ‘reformed’ or otherwise): that what counts (and anyhow is conveniently cheaper)  is to achieve ‘learning’ class by class, never mind by actual individual students.  This faulty premise is simply accentuated by ‘reform’ which frankly focuses on mass test average scores and doesn’t even pretend to worry about individual differences and students’ specific timely personal needs and growth. 

  2. Herbinchi says

     Well said, Mark.  This is simply another aspect of the “privatization” of everything that was once “public.”  A surreptious takeover of public property, spaces, institutions, etc. by those who worship at the alter of the so-called free market.  In the end, tho, as you intimate, we will all discover that there really is nothing “free” about the free market.


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