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Wage Gap Between Blacks and Whites Unchanged Since 1968

June 5, 2020

I came of age during the Civil Rights movement and like many in my generation was buoyed by the passage of the Civil Rights act in 1968, an act that would help minorities realize the promise of the 1954 Brown decision be realized after more than a decade of little or no progress. During the 1960s I found it heartening to see the government accepting responsibility for the lack of a level playing field, taking an activist role to ensure that those who were born into poverty had a chance to advance economically, to ensure that minorities did not suffer from discrimination in seeking jobs or housing, to ensure that students who attended public schools in any zip code had the same opportunities as those who resided in the best neighborhoods or communities.

I attended graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia in the early 1970s while I was teaching at a under-resourced and overcrowded junior high school in that city and on a Ford Foundation Fellowship that was touted as helping to create a “new breed of school administrator”. Our cohort of eight, the third and penultimate group, took courses from professors at the Wharton School, the Penn Law School, and the Graduate School of Education. We were being trained as leaders who would help advance the changes inherent in the legislation enacted in the late 1960s, to transform public education and thereby transform the attitudes of the country.

The events of the past week make me very sad. The high-minded dreams of inclusiveness and opportunity my classmates and I held hit up against reality and reality won. I am less confident than ever that our country wants to be the melting pot I believed we aspired to be and increasingly disabused of the notion that our citizens want economic and social justice. Indeed, it seems the public is not interested in economic justice if it requires any kind of helping hand to immigrants or minorities, especially if that helping hand tips the scales in their favor to compensate for their birth into poverty.

Two stories I read yesterday were especially soul crushing. The title of the first, a story by Heather Long and Andrew Van Dam and in yesterday’s Washington Post, describes what HASN’T happened since the 60s:

The black-white economic divide is as wide as it was in 1968

Fourteen charts in the story illustrate the reality described in the headline… a reality that fills me with despair. As one who believed that education was the best means of providing equal opportunity in the long run, it was especially discouraging to read this:

Higher education has long been touted as a ticket to the middle class, but for black Americans that has not been as true as one might hope. The typical black household headed by someone with an advanced degree has less wealth than a white household with only a high school diploma.

Given THAT reality, how could any counselor in good faith encourage a black high school student to take on the massive debt that now accompanies higher education? Give THAT reality, how will universal college help? Given THAT reality, how can any white person be surprised that people of color are angry and dismayed over their status in our culture.

The second article, a Shanker Institute blog postFive Things Not to do When Schools Reopen, by Finnish educator and writer Pasi Sahlberg, offers advice on what public schools in our country should avoid doing whenever they reopen after the pandemic.  I found myself nodding in agreement with the first four, which were:

1. Don’t think that kids only learn when they are taught

2. Don’t worry about kids’ losses on school tests

3. Don’t expect kids to be ready to continue where they left off

4. Don’t consider recess as a low priority

His fifth item, though, made me shake my head in despair. Here is the recommendation and the text that accompanies it:

5. Don’t expect there will be a ‘new normal’ anytime soon

There are high hopes now that when schools re-open they will, finally, really change. Linda Darling-Hammond, who called it ‘A New Deal’ for education wrote, that “This pandemic puts a stark light on an emerging truth—education as we know it is over, and we must think of ‘school’ in deeply different ways.” I agree with her and others that simply picking up where we were when schools closed and continuing business as usual when they re-open as if nothing had happened would not be smart. But this is not the first time we have hoped schools would really change. Such change hasn’t happened before and it probably won’t happen now unless we reimagine the change itself. I havethree reasons to doubt that there will be a ‘the new normal’that is significantly different from what we had before. First, schooling will not change without bold and brave shifts in mindsets as to how that change happens. Most of what we have heard by now is about ‘what should change,’ not ‘why’ or ‘how’ it should change. Second, the role of policy in transforming schools after the pandemic is probably much less effective than we think. If we really want to transform our schools, we should expect less from policy-driven reforms and more from the visionary leadership of principals, professional wisdom of the teachers, and passionate engagement of students as change-makers. Finally, after the pandemic, most governments will be under massive pressure to rebuild their economies and cut public spending.This will put schools between a rock and a hard place. But I have been wrong before and would celebrate being so again if the ‘new normal’ would come to describe entire school systems, not just some schools.

Like Linda Darling-Hammond, I agree that the pandemic is likely to result in transformation and like Pasi Sahlberg I am clear-eyed about the need for a “bold and brave shift in mindset” in order for the change to occur. But reading Sahlberg’s assessment that “such change hasn’t happened before and it probably won’t happen now unless we reimagine the change itself” in a blog post that will be read by union members does nothing to encourage teachers to be the change they want to see.

Reading these two pieces in succession saddened me because they seem to be saying that we never see the change of heart that is needed to bring about racial and economic justice nor will we ever see the change of minds that is necessary to dismantle the factory school.

Having written these words, though, and being a die-hard optimist, I offer these concluding quotes. First is the quote from Darrick Hamilton of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State that serves as the final paragraph in the Washington Post article:

“I’m hopeful of younger generations. To the extent white people, particularly white youth, are willing to sacrifice white privilege for justice, then we can have a different society that is more moral”

And secondly, a quote from Buckminster Fuller that I have used to introduce several writings on educational change:

The best way to change the existing reality is to create a new reality that makes the old one obsolete

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