Outing the Privilege Gap
The "Achievement"/Opportunity/Privilege Gap
Here are the beginning of some thoughts about what I believe is a very pressing issue in Education today --- the so-called "achievement" gap.
Closing the Privilege Gap
Outing the Privilege Gap
While much is being made of the “Achievement Gap” in our schools --- largely based on the disparity of test score results between urban and suburban students ---- nothing is said about the “Privilege Gap” between these students. It’s like the dirty little secret no one wants to talk about, the crazy uncle who lives in the attic, the proverbial 800 pound gorilla in the room. If we don’t talk about it, we can make believe it’s not there.
The fact is the Achievement Gap will remain what it is as long as the Privilege Gap remains what it is.
What is the “Privilege Gap?” It is that system of embedded, unearned privilege that pervades all the institutions of the United States. It is that system of understood codes, behaviors, networks, and so on, which is inherent in a society dominated by whiteness. Moreover, in white suburban schools, in white independent schools, it is so ingrained as the norm of those cultures that it is seldom, if ever, raised as “an issue” which needs critical examination or study. Indeed, those privileged sites of learning guarantee that the system will endure. As a result, the “achievement gap” will persist. Certainly some will react to this by pointing to the outstanding achievement of P.S. this-and-that in the South Bronx, or an elementary school in Compton with through-the-roof test scores, proving that the “achievement gap” can be overcome. The privileged stance supports this --- “See, hard work and perseverance will close the gap.” There is no mention that these schools are the exception, that the bulk of urban schooling is, indeed, The Shame of the Nation Jonathan Kozol documents. And schooling is a complicated business. There are very few “models” which are easily replicable elsewhere, even if all the demographic factors seem to be a perfect match. So, those who sit with the power point to these exceptions and contend that if this one exception can exist, the entire system can work.
However, even if we weren’t using test scores as a measurement of “achievement,” we would still need to overhaul our curriculum, pedagogy, and assessments with an eye toward the Privilege Gap. And this overhaul needs to be happening in affluent suburbs and independent schools across this country right now because it isn’t just test scores that separate the haves from the have-nots in this society. It is the invisible codes, behaviors, networks, and so on, which are second nature to the almost unconscious privileged that need to be “outed.”
Inertia and the Privilege Gap
“It ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” is an aphorism we often hear in and about suburban and private schools. What that fails to acknowledge, however, is that our society is broke (and has been for almost 400 years) and does need fixing. We are in dire need of active, engaged democratic citizens who will begin a thoughtful and serious dialogue around the issues of race, class, gender, power and privilege.
These aren’t really issues most “inner-city” students need to be introduced to. They have lived it, known it, and, very often, are able to articulate it. More than twenty years after Peggy McIntosh’s Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, E.D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy and the “Culture Wars” that ensued, mainstream suburbia still hasn’t really “gotten it.”
Closing the Achievement Gap is a prime example of the singular, tunnel-visioned approach too often taken in the name of “school reform.” There is no doubt urban schools are under-resourced, that most of their students are part of grotesque statistics about poverty, that teacher quality and turnover is problematic, and so on. And, yes, all those issues must be addressed but, as ever, there is an implicit sense that “we” (read white, moneyed, privileged people) have to help and “fix” them (the Others). In one of the most striking examples of the pervasive and insidious results of White Privilege no one, it seems, has looked at the idea of how “we” can “fix” ourselves to begin to heal this country of that deep and oozing historical wound which takes the lives --- spiritually, emotionally, psychologically, and, too often, literally --- of countless young people each year.
Spending the last twelve years in urban, suburban, and independent school classrooms I have been struck less by how little those classrooms have changed than by how little has changed in the thinking of the people in the privileged schools. These places have remained untouched by the strife and hardships of our increasingly divided and polarized society. At least part of the reason for this, I would contend, is the total avoidance of --- if not outright ignorance about --- the deep-seated role of Privilege in all of our basic institutions.
Segregation is always framed as non-whites being separated from the white population. Indeed, housing patterns, real estate practices, government mortgage/lending & public-housing programs have insured the physical separation of whites in the United States from people of color. The problem, however, is that this is only seen as a negative for the people of color. As always happens, the imposed, privileged account of things assigns the “others” as “deficient.” And of course they are, in terms of economic resources, educational opportunities, social networks, and so on. Yet the white side of segregation never seems to consider what it might be losing through its isolation and almost total lack of interaction with a significant portion of their fellow citizens. This is another aspect of the Privilege Gap that needs to be rectified. The “given” of segregation is that whites are the norm and white middle class culture is what everyone should ascribe to. Value is only placed on those things that are, ultimately, white and “middle class.”
Beverly Tatum’s remarkable book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? captures in its title a basic premise of the Privilege Gap. No one notices that all the White Kids are also sitting together in the same cafeteria ---- and always have. Somehow, that’s not a problem. As Tatum notes, “Whiteness (is) simply the unexamined norm.” (p. 93) My question here, then, is when will educators --- particularly educators in predominantly white suburban and independent schools ---- begin to frame their teaching in ways that leads their students to question this blind obedience to such a norm? If, in fact, we, as a society, do believe that “all children can learn,” and “all men are created equal,” when will we begin to genuinely question why, in 2007, we have a radically stratified society in which only some children are given far greater opportunities to learn and only a small percentage of the population is seen as “equal?”
Again, while urban schools are clearly in need of many kinds of support, their suburban counterparts are left unquestioned as to their role in rectifying the situation. We certainly have hard evidence, in Connecticut’s Scheff case (superbly documented in Susan Eaton’s The Children in Room E4), that white suburbs are resisting change every chance they get and in every possible way ---- even when the courts have ruled otherwise. What I will contend here is that ending physical segregation as we now know it and see it must begin with a psychological and pedagogical change in perspective. There must be a conscious willingness on the part of educators in white suburban and independent schools to develop a curriculum and language of critique for their students if there is to be any hope for ultimately engaging this society on a genuine path toward equal opportunity in education and elsewhere.
Closing the Privilege Gap
The challenge I am going to issue here is one that could be done --- and done without radically altering the world of school which already exists in white suburban America and on the campuses of elite private schools. It has to do with reality-testing whether people who say they are of good will, are not racist, and want an equal society, are actually willing to act on those ideas. I am speaking specifically to educators here but what I am describing is something which could (and probably should!) happen in many other venues
The premise I am working from is rather simple: the adult generation in control of the society today have not, and will not, honestly address the issues of race and class in the United States in ways that will alter the basic systems of inequality and injustice which prevail. The most we can do, as members of that generation presently in control, is prepare the next generation of citizens to be ready to tackle those issues honestly and forthrightly. In particular, we have to prepare those future citizens who are most likely to hold the greatest power in our succeeding generation --- the students who are being prepared in suburban and independent schools ---- to recognize they are the beneficiaries of unearned power and privilege, advantage and opportunity, and with that privilege and power comes responsibility. We have set a rather miserable example for our children but it does not mean that we cannot leave a respectable legacy by speaking the Truth.
Most schools or districts have a Mission Statement that usually goes something like this: Our graduates will be critical thinking problem-solvers who will be productive contributors to a multicultural society. There’s nothing wrong with that statement (and few places are held accountable to those goals) but we have reached a point where we need to change the Mission. By that I mean, it is time to commit ourselves to graduating students as responsible citizens who will actively work to create a just and equitable society. This needs to become an active, conscious goal for suburban and independent schools, whose graduates will undoubtedly wield great power during the 21st Century.
How do we do it? It’s actually quite simple. Without necessarily altering much, if any, of the current curriculum we can alter what students intend on doing with that curriculum. It means that our focus shifts from individual accomplishment for individual gain (usually at the expense of someone else) to accomplishment for achievement of just and equitable goals. It means making students in Advanced Placement classes consciously aware of the fact that the advantage this class gives them --- in their school, in their college application, whatever --- brings with a responsibility to give something back. We need to better instill in the minds of the privileged that their position is the result of generations of inequity and systemic inequality. And we cannot let focus degenerate into the personal! “My family didn’t own slaves.” Well, no, they may not have. Nevertheless, the people who have benefited from the labors of those slaves created institutions and systems of power which privileged one group in our society over others. That system is still alive and not only well, but thriving. That system is why the “Achievement Gap” will not change significantly over time.
Colin Powell, Barack Obama, Condoleeza Rice are all exceptions to the rule. Step back and honestly look at our society. George W. Bush is one of the great beneficiaries of Affirmative Action. Being a Yale legacy has its privileges, indeed. But our students are not being taught to look at or think about Affirmative Action in those terms. No, it is maintained as, “One of them will get my place at Harvard simply because (s)he is a person of color.” Those dividers are the stakes driven into the heart of social justice killing any advance of genuine dialogue around issues of power, privilege, race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ableism, etc.
If we do not consciously attack The Privilege Gap where it lives --- in the suburban and independent schools of this nation --- there is little hope that somehow, miraculously, American Society will wake up one morning and everyone will be Brothers and Sisters. The tragedies are well documented, the statistics are filed, the message could not be more obvious.
Does Privileged White Society have the will to accept the responsibilityto make good on the promises of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights and the rest of the Constitutional Amendments? It can begin in the schools if parents, school boards, administrators, and teachers are willing to take up the challenge. In our media-saturated age of misinformation this will not be easy, to be sure. But it is possible. It requires commitment and will. It requires removing these issues from the personal plane to the societal level, recognizing that we may not have created this system and its institutions, but we do not have to maintain them the way they operate now. If we do not take a new path, one that honestly confronts unearned Privileged and its inherently unequal society, then we can be sure the Achievement Gap will persist, to the detriment of us all.
To be continued . . . . stay tuned . . .