Education in the Age of Ferguson

Independent Commission On Public Education (ICOPE) Dec 22, 2014

What happened in Ferguson, Missouri –and most recently right here in New York City with the Eric Garner police killing– is evidence of massive failures in many sectors of our society, from the policing of communities of color, the criminal justice and the court systems, to the very way this country educates its youngest and most impressionable citizens and residents.

In this article we present some thoughts on how transforming our education system through a human rights framework could, over time, positively change our social system.

The Mis-education of The American Citizen Breeds Racism

Like so many in deadly positions of authority, Darren Wilson lacked the intellectual and emotional tools to navigate an encounter with a Black teenager. For their part, Black youth are also unprepared to navigate their way in a racist society that condemns them for everything from the color of their skin, to their dress, music, language, behavior and mere presence, when no crime has been committed. The pervasive mindset that permits the racist hostility, beatings and, too often, loss of life at the hands of the police indicates the extent of the problem. The violation of human rights is completely unacceptable. 

We must act swiftly to rid the nation of the terrorism enacted upon Black/Brown people. The frustration of living in a police state, rather than a democracy is compounded by our president repeating  as he did recently, the myth that we are a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants. This completely distorts the true nature of the United States by erasing the millions of indigenous Native Americans and tens of millions of us who were forced to endure the horrors of the Middle Passage and slavery.

It is the nation’s education system with its lack of cultural knowledge, understanding of history, empathy, human caring and concern that ought to be on trial. Its failure to teach the historical realities of this nation along with the capacities for self-awareness and critical thinking  is what produces individuals like Darren Wilson, NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo (who used the illegal chokehold to kill Eric Garner) and those who sat on both grand juries.

We need only to reflect upon the nature of lies told to children about Christopher Columbus discovering America, the erasure or glossing over in our history books of the genocide committed upon Native Americans, the omission of the barbaric Middle Passage and enslavement over hundreds of years and generations of kidnapping human beings from Africa, to understand where we are today. We need only to see the historic connection between the blood, sweat and tears of Black men, women and children held captive in the past- and still trapped today by poverty, foster care, homelessness, ghettos, unemployment, miseducation and prisons -to understand that this nation's racist foundation of oppression and supremacy remains intact.

The Mis-education of The American Citizen Breeds Ignorance of Our Human Rights and Our Power

Our schools have failed miserably to teach and practice human rights and democracy so that young people are prepared to live, work, and thrive in a multicultural and antiracist society.

Racism is historically imbedded and perpetuated in the societal fabric of this land. It is with this lens and along with the failure to properly educate the next generation that we view the situation in Ferguson– a city like many in this country, where white people police, judge, incarcerate and execute young Black/Brown men (and women) in alarming numbers and get away with it. Ferguson is also like many other cities where Black children go to substandard, severely under-resourced schools, white children go to private schools, parochial schools or schools outside the district, and families whose children attend the public schools have little or no voice in how these schools are run or financed.

What and How We Teach and Who Has the Power Are Key For Educational Excellence

If we are committed to racial justice, equity, and democracy over the long haul, we need to be making radical changes in what we teach our children, how we teach our children, how we structure the system, and who has power to make these decisions.

We have to learn about each other and each other’s histories. We need to understand and find pleasure in each other’s music, art, literature, and other cultural ways.  We need to appreciate the contributions and understand each other’s struggles against oppression and for dignity and respect. We should all understand the conflicts and struggles which have contributed to the advances that have ever so slowly so far been ‘bending’ this nation towards equity and justice.

We need to teach our young people more civics so they can learn how to access the levers of power; the arts so they can find comfort and express themselves in positive ways as well as appreciate different styles; social/emotional education so they can manage their emotions and handle conflicts nonviolently; history so they can understand the forces at work around them; and health and physical education so they can learn habits of health, teamwork, and good sportsmanship. When education is limited to math and reading, as it is currently in our test-driven education environment, our young people are stunted.

Teachers need to know their students and their cultures well if they are going to teach them well.  This is because students connecting what they already know to something new is the richest form of learning.  A teacher who doesn’t understand his or her students can’t help them make these connections. This is a clear finding in education research.

Black scholars such as Lisa Delpit, Joyce King, Gloria Ladson-Billings, and Theresa Perry, provide more than ample evidence that if you want to teach Black students well, you need to know about their lives and

interests, their families, and their culture. You need to understand them and truly respect them.  As Gloria Ladson-Billing says, “culturally responsive teaching is just good teaching.”

Research has also found that teachers generally have lower expectations of Black and Brown students. There is much work to do, especially when so many of our teachers are white while an increasing majority of students in our cities are of color.

But the problem of mis-education can’t be solved purely at the classroom level.  The education system as a whole needs to be transformed so that education actually empowers the children and their communities.  It matters to an education system who has voice and who makes the decisions regarding who gets to be a teacher, and what they need to know to be able to teach young people well, particularly those different from themselves.  It matters who makes decisions about the curriculum and how these decisions take place.

Since Mayor Bloomberg took control of the NYC schools in 2002, the people of this city, particularly parents, have been outside the decision making process. There has been little dialogue, little working together, as decisions are simply handed down from on high.  Parents are treated like consumers while the children are treated like products.  It has been dehumanizing and undemocratic.

Mayoral control ushered in changes centering around privatization, high stakes tests, common core standards and curriculum developed mainly by the private sector, in this case, Pearson. Legislators and state and city departments of education have been lobbied and bought off, in the interests of maximizing private profit.

What Can We Learn and Do About These Tragedies?

One of the things we can learn from Ferguson and the Eric Garner travesties of justice is that we the people must take charge. Our schools and the education of our children must fundamentally change so we have police who respect the humanity of Black teenagers and Black teenagers who feel connected and proud of their cultural roots. Ultimately we need a shift of power that will allow us to work across race, culture, and class to develop a common vision for our schools that include the full human development of each one of us within a framework of dignity and respect for all of us. This is what a human rights approach to education means.

The tragedy and horrors of both the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner along with the twisted and biased work of both the Ferguson and Staten Island grand juries SHOULD BE a wake up call for deep reflection, antiracist education, increased organizing, and action for racial justice in the United States.  We need to take control of our schools and our school systems so their potential for transforming our society can be realized.

The Independent Commission On Public Education (ICOPE) is a New York City-based organization of educators and parent activists who advocate for a human rights based approach to education.


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