Alien Abduction, Racial Sacrifice, And the School Accountability Movement
Imagine, if you will, an alien species’ Ambassador invading the Thames House (the British MI5 headquarters). The following demand is made: turn over 10% of your children within 24 hours or every human on the planet will be killed. The British Prime Minister and his cabinet hastily convene to make the difficult decision. They deem the threat credible and move directly into a discussion over how to choose which children can and must be sacrificed.1
How might you make the decision?
This scenario is pulled from a 2009 science fiction series that aired last year on the [wikipop]British Broadcasting Corporation[/wikipop] television network. The series, “[wikipop]Torchwood: Children of Earth[/wikipop],” follows a “covert agency called the Torchwood Institute [in [wikipop]Cardiff, Wales[/wikipop]] which investigates extraterrestrial incidents on Earth.” This particular “Torchwood” scenario possesses an eerie relationship to “The Space Traders.” 2 This parable, written by [wikipop]Derrick Bell[/wikipop], a leading civil rights attorney and law scholar, remains a classic for Critical Race Theory scholars. In the parable, Bell tells of how space traders come to American shores ready to provide riches to pull the government out of bankruptcy, chemicals to fully clean the environment, and safe nuclear energy to fuel our machines, big and small. In return, they ask only to have all African Americans return with them to their extraterrestrial home. Therefore, Bell narrates the “involuntary sacrificial role blacks have played in” American legal thought.3 Might this sacrificial role also reveal itself in school policy?
To ponder this question, let us return to Thames House and to the Prime Minister and his emergency Cabinet meeting. Note carefully the deliberations of the UK Cabinet Ministers about children to be sacrificed. As might be expected, the passion of the language has become tense as well as testy.
Black male (BM): It [the selection] would have to be random.
White woman (WW): You’re willing to risk your [pause] …
White man (WM): We could do it alphabetically.
BM: Or could we limit it to one lost child to a family?
WW: Look, I’m going to say what everyone else is thinking, if this lottery takes place, my kids aren’t in it.
White male Prime Minister (PM): Whatever happens, the children and grandchildren of those around this table will be exempt.
WW: In a national emergency, a country must plan for the future and discriminate between those who are vital to continued stability and those who are not, and now that we have established our kids are exempt, the whole principle of random selection is dead in the water. On the one hand we have the good schools, and I don’t just mean those producing graduates, I mean the pupils who will go on to staff our hospitals, our offices, our factories, the workforce of the future, we need them – excepted, yes [?] – so, sort against that you’ve got the failing schools full of the less able, the less socially useful, those destined to live a life on benefits, occupying places on the dole queue and, frankly, the prisons; now, look, should we treat them equally[?]…and if we can’t identify the lowest achieving 10 percent of this country’s children, than what are the school league tables for? (Bold emphasis added.)4
Pause in order for the emphasized words to sink into your conscience. Yes, what good are the school report cards or end of school year test results (translated for a U.S. context) if they are not permanently to label as non-productive the lowest achieving schools, the children who learn in them, and the adults who also inhabit these offensive and utterly “failed” institutions? School report cards are only one strikingly superficial measure of school accountability. Assuredly, and on the other hand, they remain one of the American School Accountability Movement’s most iconic measures. Highlighting low and/or failing grades all but irrevocably tattoo a red L, the sign of the “loser,” on the foreheads of all – young and old – in low performing schools.
Important to notice is that most of the nation’s low achieving schools are most readily found in urban settings that enroll high concentrations of students of color. In Missouri alone, an overwhelming majority of schools on the recently released “List of Low-Performing schools” are found in [wikipop search=”St. Louis, Missouri”]St. Louis[/wikipop] and [wikipop]Kansas City[/wikipop], the two school districts in the state with the largest numbers of African American students.5 These and similar results across the nation add a brutal reality to Bell’s racial sacrifice logic. This circumstance will be unremarkable for many in the black community. Their children routinely are seen as expendable by white folks.6
The racial sacrifice logic of the American School Accountability Movement has even been recognized by noted educational scholars. Larry Cuban, for example, describes how the title of his recent book, As Good as It Gets, should be understood:
as in an urban district that is improving schools far beyond what observers and critics would have predicted, yet still has serious unfinished work in high-poverty, low-performing schools.7
Moreover, Cuban, after studying the contexts to school accountability reform in [wikipop]Austin, Texas[/wikipop], asserts that
What such accountability [of tough penalties] can do, however, is to fortify a three-tiered system of schooling that was anchored in decades of segregated schools and poverty but that had gone largely unnoticed by the media and by civic and business leaders.8
Finally, Cuban pulls away the drape of respectability of school accountability measures to reveal the ugly truth at its core.
The consequences of [wikipop search=”Jim Crow laws”]Jim Crow[/wikipop] practices for blacks and Hispanic immigrants since the early twentieth century remain noticeable in Austin’s schools a half-century after the [wikipop search=”Brown v. Board of Education”]Brown[/wikipop] decision.9
Proponents of increased school accountability stridently insist that their ideas for a better “one best system” radically alter past educational traditions.10 However, as Cuban reminds us, the drive for a one best system received major impetus during the very era that Jim Crow violence rose to horrible levels. Tragically, this racial violence now resides precisely inside many of today’s classroom.11
[wikipop]Diane Ravitch[/wikipop] has recently reported her investigation of the School Accountability Movement and her personal involvement in it. Historian Ravitch, a one-time supporter, even a prominent leader, of the Movement reveals her shame over her support of this reform in her recent The Death and Life of the Great American School District: How Choice and Testing are Undermining Education. For example, in Ch. 3, “The Transformation of District 2,” Ravitch investigates the trumpeted success of this New York City district.12 Often lauded for the significant rise of students’ test scores in the late 1990s, disaggregated both by student and school, the District is viewed as a model of how data-driven evidence can lead to substantial, even glowing success. However, Ravitch advanced a much simpler reason for the rise in test scores. Rapid gentrification in the District’s neighborhoods had brought large numbers of white and Asian students to the district; therefore, students for whom tests are written for displaced African American and Latina/o students who face immense test bias. Therefore, Ravitch proposed an explanation that might have been culled from School Leadership for Dummies: Push out undesirables and see test score rise!13 For clarification, then, the rise in test score was no multitude of reform efforts at accountability but, rather, simple demographic change. This event represents nothing more than government supported removal of students of color and their families from certain neighborhoods.14 Racial sacrifice revealed, once again.
So, is it Memorex or Live?15 Is it a sci-fi TV show or reality? Historians Cuban and Ravitch help reveal some of the realities of racial sacrifice in school accountability reforms. Although “Alien Abduction” easily can be discounted as fantasy, very strong research by noted scholars like Cuban and Ravitch remains difficult to ignore. Additional examples of racial sacrifice in school practice must be revealed. Supplementary representations of “education policy as white supremacy” must be interrogated.16 Or might Americans really desire some students of color to suffer sure social death?
- “Torchwood: Children of Earth,” British Broadcasting Corporation television series, 2009 – website follows. http://www.bbc.co.uk/torchwood/ [↩]
- Derrick Bell, “Space Traders,” in Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism (New York: Basic Books, 1992), 158-194. [↩]
- Derrick Bell, “The Power of Narrative,” Legal Studies Forum 23(3): 315. [↩]
- “Torchwood” – downloaded from Netflix, 04/25/10. Dialogue from Season 3, Day 4, 27:39-30:00. [↩]
- David Hunn. “State releases list of “lowest achieving” schools in Missouri; 37 of 52 in St. Louis area,” stltoday.com, 03/09/2010 [↩]
- By way of example, see the post by Melissa Harris-Lacewell (Princeton University Professor of Politics) at TheRoot.com in which, during the Rev. Wright/Obama news moment, she describes Reverend Jeremiah Wright as a Black Patriot in the black community even as he was being reviled by white voters. Harris-Lacewell, “Our Jeremiah: Why Obama’s Pastor Matters.” http://www.theroot.com/views/our-jeremiah [↩]
- Larry Cuban, As Good As It Gets: What School Reform Brought to Austin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010), 22-23. [↩]
- Ibid, 131. [↩]
- Ibid, 185. [↩]
- Quotation from David Tyack, The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974). See, for example Diane Ravitch’s description of the movement and their leading spokesman in her The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education (New York: Basic Books, 2010). [↩]
- For examples, see Gaston Alonso, Noel Anderson, Celina Su, and Jeanne Theoharis, Our Schools Suck: Students Talk Back to a Segregated Nation on the Failures of Urban Education (New York: NYU Press, 2009) and Erica R. Meiners, The Right to Be Hostile: Schools, Prisons, and the Making of Public Enemies (New York: Routledge, 2007). [↩]
- Ravitch, The Life and Death, 31-46. [↩]
- Certainly, no such book exists. The title references a “series of instructional books which are intended to present non-intimidating guides for readers new to the various topics covered.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/For_Dummies [↩]
- The literature is voluminous on gentrification and racialized governmental policy that supports it. See, for examples, Neil Smith, The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City (New York: Routledge, 1996); and Rebecca Solnit, Hollow City: Gentrification and the Eviction of Urban Culture (London: Verso, 2001). [↩]
- Older readers will recognize this sentence as a reversal of the longstanding advertising jingle first aired in 1972. [↩]
- David Gilborn, “Education Policy as an Act of White Supremacy: Whiteness, Critical Race Theory, and Education Reform,” in Edward Taylor, David Gilborn, and Gloria Ladson-Billings, Eds., Foundations of Critical Race Theory in Education (New York: Routledge, 2009), 51-69. [↩]
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