Obscuring Whiteness with Liberalism
Winners and Losers in Federal School Reform
We may have reached a moment in which theoretically, empirically, and strategically it’s time to shift gears (or multiply). If institutions are organized such that being white (or male, or elite) buys protection and if this protection necessitates the institutional subversion of opportunities for persons of color in policies/practices that appear race-neutral, then liberal strategies for access are limited. By that I mean that those who have been historically excluded may disproportionately “fail” to perform “to standard.” Some will drop out. A few will go nuts. A handful will survive as “the good ones.” The institutional mantra of deficit and merit will triumph.
—Michelle Fine, “Witnessing Whiteness”
Birch Secondary School experienced a number of changes between 2006 and 2010, including the departure of Mr. More, the principal; the completion of a brand-new school building; the arrival and departure of another principal; and the arrival of yet a third principal, who started when Birch was awarded a federally funded School Improvement Grant (SIG) in 2010.
This chapter asks readers to fast-forward five years and take a look inside Birch during the implementation of a federally funded school-improvement effort. I recognize that the time lapse may cause readers to wonder what happened in the interim, but my point in jumping ahead to 2010–12 is to examine whether, how, and to what extent whiteness continues to operate given the current school-reform moment in which we find ourselves. Although some of the specific tools look different, the larger mechanisms of whiteness have not changed. There continue to be structural and institutional barriers standing in the way of equity, and there continue to be explanations and efforts that center the individual. Perhaps even more so than previous efforts to address diversity and equity in schools, SIG policy and practice highlight the power of policy to solidify racially patterned success and failure and, simultaneously, to obscure the work being done to entrench those patterns behind ideologies of individually based deficit and merit.
Reflecting on the School Improvement Grant at Birch, a veteran teacher explained that “this is supposed to be an effort that is supposed to bridge the achievement gap, make things more equal; but right now what’s happening is it’s just making us more different, way more different.” This teacher identifies the good intentions behind the SIG program but simultaneously points out that the reform effort is not actually doing nice things within his school. Indeed, exacerbating “differences” and missing the target on equality are not nice outcomes within schools. As the teacher points out, themes from the previous chapters continue to be evident at Birch. The way sameness and difference come into contact in educators’ narratives, their appeals to equality, and their well-intended efforts to advance equity—all these elements of whiteness continue to operate in the new federally driven school-reform movement. But mapped onto these themes is a pointed allegiance to classical liberal ideas about the individual and social change.
Liberalism, with its steadfast protection of the individual and individual rights, has been a recurring theme in the previous chapters. This chapter centers these concepts and illustrates how liberalism and individualism are at work through a federally driven effort to improve academic achievement in schools serving youth of color and those from low-income communities. I suggest that analyzing SIG policy and practice through a lens of liberalism highlights how current federal school reform results in a neoliberal transformation of schools in which the individual is held staunchly responsible for failure that is institutionally predetermined, inequity is further entrenched, and the outcomes are understood to be both natural and acceptable.
The first half of this chapter analyzes SIG policy, and the second half examines the actual experience and impact of the School Improvement Grant at Birch Secondary School. Before exploring SIG policy and practice, it will be helpful to understand some fundamental tenets of liberalism. The preceding teacher’s quote highlights the tension between efforts to advance equality in the face of stark differences and patterned inequity. Building on the previous chapter’s discussion of equality, this chapter examines current school-reform efforts in order to illustrate the trouble in relying on classical liberal tenets and corresponding tropes of the individual and social change absent a commitment to justice. Liberalism maintains educators’ focus on individuals so that structural barriers and institutionalized patterns remain invisible.
Classical liberalism is characterized by a number of ideas and values that might otherwise be understood as wholly American. Three tenets of classical liberal thought are individualism, egalitarianism, and meliorism (Cochran 1999; Dawson 2003; Locke 1986; Mill 1982; Olson 2004; Starr 2008). Individualism asserts the ethical primacy of the human being against the pressures of social collectivism. In other words, the individual is the main concern within a liberal framework. Egalitarianism assigns equal moral worth and status to all individuals, so each individual is the same within the liberal framework. Meliorism asserts that successive generations can improve their sociopolitical arrangements. Individuals can improve, and individuals can also improve society, through hard work. Meliorism implies that progress is important and that the betterment of society is dependent on both individual and societal progress. These three tenets of liberalism cut across what we tend to think of as “liberal” and “conservative” ideas in the United States; rather, they are nice values to which most Americans subscribe regardless of political affiliation. In the following sections, I employ these three liberal tenets to analytically unpack SIG policy at the federal level and SIG practice at Birch.
Examining the School Improvement Grant through a liberal framework also highlights the ways public education is currently undergoing a neoliberal transformation. Classical liberalism and neoliberalism are certainly linked, and both enjoy such prevalence as to be considered an “ideological monoculture” with no other alternatives (Ross and Gibson 2007). Although rarely used in mainstream U.S. discourse, neoliberalism describes the current economic, and increasingly social, policy perspective embraced by most Americans. As Wayne Ross and Rich Gibson (2007) note, “The free market, private enterprise, consumer choice, entrepreneurial initiative, deleterious effects of government regulation, and so on, are the tenets of neoliberalism” (2). Both classical liberalism and neoliberalism minimize the relevance of context, relationality, and community. This overlap between liberalism and neoliberalism exists because of the primacy of the individual—an emphasis that is firm, resilient, and unfriendly to equity. Many current conversations in education revolve around neoliberalism and its impact on schools, youth, and communities. This chapter advances these conversations by introducing the ways liberalism, neoliberalism, and whiteness intertwine with devastating effects on youth of color, low-income youth, and communities like the Zion School District.
The energy and focus of SIG reform efforts are centered on issues that divert attention away from the inequity and injustice so prevalent in schools and are therefore consistent with niceness. Struggles over policy implementation, the rules of competition, divisions between players, and the meaning of reform all result in an absence of struggle over whether all youth are actually learning, what the nature of schooling is for various groups of students, and the extent to which schools are engaging communities in healthy ways. Liberalism shapes the issues and struggles that get our attention, effectively glossing over the students and communities most harmed by these phenomena. Liberalism, then, is an important iteration of whiteness in the U.S. context, and it provides an extremely effective vehicle through which whiteness operates.
Since 2009, the U.S. Department of Education has authorized more than $4.5 billion for School Improvement Grants and made these funds available only to Title I schools whose achievement records are in the lowest 5 percent within their state. This federally funded school-improvement effort is related to the more commonly known Race to the Top program, but it is specifically aimed at and only available to schools identified as the lowest performing in each state. The SIG program was initially conceived as a policy under the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act. It was not funded, however, until 2007—and even then, it was only awarded minimal funds. In 2009, the SIG program was transformed and expanded through the passage of President Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
The SIG reform model is part of “a long, historical trend in which the federal government has increasingly leveraged its comparatively small financial contribution to public K–12 education to bring about highly specified changes in school organizations and practices” (Dee 2012, 3). This reform model includes elements of teacher and principal effectiveness, instructional reform, extended learning time, increased community engagement in schools, operational flexibility and support, and the use of various community services needed by youth (Dee 2012). These are changes advanced by school-reform movements at various points over at least the past thirty years. Although the reform model is not new, what goes unnamed and unarticulated in the SIG program is the primacy of individualism and specifically defined calls for social change. As long as educators remain invested in liberal, and thus individually based, ideologies, persistent structural inequities also remain intact.
In what follows, I analyze SIG policy at the federal level and suggest that its foundation in liberal notions of the individual and social change encourages schools to compete under assumptions of equality and meritocracy. But the scales are unevenly weighted, so educational debts continue to compile against schools like Birch, while successes at schools like Spruce appear to be the result of individual effort and merit.
Among educational leaders and social commentators, one interpretation of this federal school-reform effort is that the SIG project is designed to close the persistent achievement gaps not addressed through the No Child Left Behind Act. This rationale positions School Improvement Grants as advancing equity. Another interpretation is that the SIG project is designed to advance the privatization of education and further entrench a market model among schools. There is a complicated, and yet also simple, line of reasoning at work here on both sides of the debate. On the one hand, liberalism criticizes government involvement, and so the SIG effort can be constructed as too interventionist, overly micromanaging, and overstepping the federal role in education. Under this framework, government should back off and let individual schools step up to the plate and compete in the open market for customers (i.e., students) by proving their value. And if schools are unable or unwilling to engage in this competition, or if they simply do not make it, the subsequent consequences (school sanctions, closures, etc.) are well deserved. On the other hand, government involvement is welcomed if it is aimed at protecting or even advancing individual rights and entitlements. So School Improvement Grants are an acceptable intervention if they help build a structure for competitive individualism among consumers (i.e., students and schools themselves). Either way, we can see how liberalism, individualism, and neoliberalism are engaged but also naturalized.
Alongside these debates, the SIG program is framed at the federal level as a much-needed response to the stagnantly poor education offered to youth of color and students from low-income backgrounds. School Improvement Grants are publicly linked to the economic well-being of the nation and to ideologies of meritocracy and individualism. In May 2012, responding to a study of California schools receiving SIG funds that showed academic improvement in the state’s lowest performing schools after just one year of SIG funding, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan noted, “Educators and school leaders cannot give up on making far-reaching improvements in student learning in our lowest-performing schools. Children only get one shot at a good education. And Dee’s new study reminds us that poverty is not destiny” (Duncan 2012). The discourse here is steeped in notions of individualism, helping, paternalism, and urgency. Teachers are implored to “not give up.” The assumption is that individual teachers do make a difference and that student success is largely dependent on educators’ efforts and determination. While individual teachers certainly matter, my point here is that teachers can only make limited gains with students as long as the system continues to rely on inequity as its foundation. Duncan further invokes the liberal trope of the individual by remarking that “poverty is not destiny.” In other words, one’s socioeconomic standing, which is unequivocally tied to one’s access to resources (i.e., healthy food, good schools, quality medical care, etc.), does not actually impact one’s likelihood of success. Within this framework, change is the result of individual work and results in individual success. Furthermore, the SIG effort is framed as a good, and a decidedly nice, effort to improve education for youth of color and those from low-income communities. As such, it is potentially dangerous to critique the SIG program. But it is precisely this framing that masks the institutionally sanctioned inequity and whiteness that continue to operate through this well-intended educational policy.
States award SIG funds to eligible schools based on a competitive application process, so schools that have consistently struggled to serve students compete against one another for a limited pot of money. This is typical of the zero-sum game implied in liberal ideologies and, by extension, in whiteness. It is not possible for everyone to access much-needed resources. When resources go to one entity, they must be withheld from another. This pits entities (in this case, schools and districts) against one another in a competition that belies the actual problem—that is, that the entire system of education is structured inequitably and that that inequity is the foundation of whiteness. Race is central to the competition for SIG funds because it is primarily students of color who reside in schools eligible to compete. Awarding funds to schools struggling to serve students of color is the sort of unequal approach that might be needed to advance equity. Unfortunately, there are other mechanisms at work that thwart this possibility.
The goal of the SIG program is “turning around the nation’s lowest performing schools.” Even in the program’s name, we see an appeal to social change: “improve” schools and “turn around” our worst schools. Implied here is that such change is both necessary and possible, and that it is possible through strategies outlined by the federal government and carried out by individual districts, schools, principals, and teachers. Schools that are awarded SIG funds must undergo significant reform under one of four models outlined by the U.S. Department of Education:
- 1. Transformation model. Replace the principal, reform instruction, increase learning time, and provide “flexibility and support.”
- 2. Turnaround model. Same as transformation model, but also must replace at least 50 percent of the staff.
- 3. Restart model. Close the school and reopen it as a charter school.
- 4. School-closure model. Close the school and reassign students to a higher-performing school.
Of the schools awarded SIG funds thus far nationwide, 74 percent have adopted the transformation model, 20 percent have adopted the turnaround model, 4 percent have adopted the restart model, and 2 percent have adopted the school-closure model. In other words, the model requiring the least drastic measures has been adopted by the most number of schools. This is not surprising when viewed through a lens of whiteness: Acquiescence to the status quo allows inequity to go unquestioned and unaddressed.
Inequity also thrives because, within the SIG reform model, there is a mismatch between the location of power and the location of responsibility. As one Birch teacher described, “So the district says, ‘Here’s how you’re going to do it.’ The school implements it, it doesn’t work, and then it feels like it’s the teachers’ fault or the school’s fault.” The power of the purse strings and decisions with broad impact lie at the federal and state levels and, to some degree, with districts. But the responsibility for change and blame when things do not go well lies with schools, principals, and teachers. The federal government holds the funds, defines the options for school-improvement models that schools can adopt, and determines eligibility requirements. The states then distribute funds based on competitive applications, and they monitor the implementation of school-improvement efforts. But the principals and teachers ultimately carry out the hard work and, more important, take the blame when efforts do not produce the sought-after results. Thus the schooling of youth is determined by policies and decisions made far removed from their immediate space and place. This mismatch is not unlike the patterns I described in chapter 1, whereby responsibility for equity is displaced, making accountability for equity almost impossible. The tendency to relinquish responsibility is consistent with both niceness and the liberal privileging of individual autonomy because it can be framed as allowing others to self-actualize and take leadership. The problem, of course, is that if leadership and accountability for equity are relinquished by everyone, then no one does anything about it.
Recall that a central tenet of liberalism is a focus on the individual. Liberalism posits that the individual is of utmost importance: Individual rights are to be stringently protected, and individuals are autonomous agents acting within the world. It is easy to think about students and teachers as individuals, but under the SIG program, schools are also made into—and treated like—individuals. This is not unlike the notion that corporations are individuals, with the ability to enter and enforce contracts, sue and be sued, and exercise and protect certain rights and entitlements. If an entire school is an individual, it now has its own identity, agency, and culpability. This has important implications for the ways schools get talked about, managed, and assigned both rights and responsibilities. For example, a school can be sanctioned and even shut down as a result of persistently low test scores. Lost in this consequence is the way academic failure is institutionally patterned across the entire educational system. As individuals, schools’ presumed autonomy justifies their responsibility for decisions and outcomes. But the decisions are actually made elsewhere. And the outcomes are largely dependent on both resources that they have little control over and larger structures of schooling, race, and power.
The competition inherent in the SIG program highlights the way schools are viewed as individuals. Competition among individuals is acceptable, and even encouraged, within a liberal framework, and under the SIG program, struggling schools enter into a competitive game for a prize that they cannot all be granted. The fact that there is a $4.5 billion payout for this game diverts attention away from the stadium in which the game is being played. But this stadium is fraught with legacies of race and power dominance, including health disparities, justice inequities, economic liabilities, and educational debts. Liberalism—and its concomitant individualism, egalitarianism, and meliorism—averts our gaze to the game and the trophy so that we lose sight of the conditions under which we are playing. In other words, we know that our system of schooling has historically worked to the advantage of some at the expense of others. We also know that schooling is political and holds high stakes for students, families, and communities. But the liberal emphasis on individual competition allows these facts to fade into the background as we get wrapped up in making sure we get the money, spend it in a timely fashion, and maintain an honorable score. This avoidance of the larger context of the competition is an effective mechanism of both niceness and whiteness.
Competition is one place where we can see how schools are made into individuals, but we also see how schools are framed as individuals through the discourse of “school improvement” and “school turnaround.” Just as educators once talked about remediating at-risk students, policy makers now talk about remediating at-risk schools. This is important because of the way it lulls us into compassion and empathy for schools. Schools are no longer institutions that we must work to ensure are serving all people equitably. Instead, schools are the individuals that now need our care and compassion. Again, it becomes easy to lose sight of actual people, relationships, and communities when our focus is turned to the school as an individual. When schools become individuals, it masks the real issue—that students are not being served equitably. This distraction cloaks the needs of individuals and groups of students within the larger “reform effort.”
Alongside this individualism of schools, we see the meliorist element of liberalism played out in multiple ways within SIG policy. At the school level, the thinking goes that if money is funneled into a struggling school, the school should be able to “turn around.” The federal government provides schools with extra money in an effort to level the playing field and ensure equal opportunity. SIG policy tells schools to pull themselves up to the level of the schools across town. And if they cannot meet that standard, even with the extra funds, then surely schools either have not tried hard enough or are simply unable. Under this framework, equal opportunity is a code for maintaining the status quo and ignoring the structural issues at play. Although the SIG policy positions itself in stark contrast to the punitive argument that says, “If we take money away from failing schools, they will be forced to improve,” the end result is the same. In both cases, schools, as individual entities, are assumed to be solely and independently responsible for their own fate. But inequity is a structural problem that cannot be addressed by engaging either schools, students, or teachers as individuals. Instead, schools should be treated as part of a larger whole in need of systemic change. This sort of change can only occur when we are able to reframe and reorient the conversation around patterned inequity, ideologies of dominance, and unjust institutions.
At the teacher level, the thinking goes that if the SIG program mandates more instructional time in core subject areas and more professional development, the teacher should be able to “turn around.” The policy implies that professional development and ten extra minutes in math, language arts, and science will result in better teaching. The operating assumption of the SIG program is that teachers were not doing a good job previously but that with these imposed remediations, their practice will improve.
At the student level, it is the same story. If youth have “more time on task” in their core academic subjects, test scores will improve, and we can conclude they are being better educated. This is a story line of educational reform that we all know. It is also a nicely packaged meliorist discourse about improvement through hard work and the open possibilities for improving one’s lot.
Thus the SIG program locates the problem of “underperforming” schools with individual students, teachers, and schools and therefore masks structural problems that are actually about power and race. It relies on assumptions that meritocracy will prevail and that equal opportunity exists given the added resources awarded to “failing schools.” Under this model, emphasis is placed on discrete units that need assistance and remediation, rather than on larger patterns that are housed in systems and ideologies. This masking of structural and institutionalized phenomena is a consistent feature of liberalism. Through its design and implementation, SIG policy holds tight to individuals as the central unit of analysis. Something is not working, so fix it. If the attempted fix did not work, try again—and keep trying a few more times. This model keeps energy and attention on the individual, since that is what is broken. Attention is not spent on the structures and systems of dominance. And it is very difficult to change something that is not obviously broken.
But what if the individual is never actually meant to be fixed? This, in fact, is the suspicion of many teachers working within the SIG context at Birch. As one educator shared with me, “It’s almost like they’re setting us up for failure.” And another explained, “I feel so demoralized right now. I feel like this grant is destroying me, and it’s destroying the school. It’s destroying all my teacher friends, and it’s destroying the kids.” Teachers suspected that SIG policy assumes that individuals—whether they are students, teachers, or schools—are expendable. This is a word teachers used frequently in our conversations about the School Improvement Grant. One clearly noted, “I feel that I’m expendable,” and this feeling extended to others in the school community as well.
Students were believed to be expendable in the sense that they are the ultimate “guinea pigs” for current educational experiments. Teachers were believed to be expendable in the sense that they are fairly easily removed and replaced within SIG schools. Birch teachers explained that they were repeatedly told by district leaders, “If you don’t like it, you can leave.” Principals were most certainly believed to be expendable, since replacing them was a condition of accepting SIG money, and they are often relocated if they do not produce the desired results. And finally, schools were believed to be expendable because if they are not completely closed through the School Closure Model, they are closed as public institutions and reopened as publicly funded private institutions through the Restart Model. And if they are not subject to one of these conditions, they are expected to “turn around” or “transform” into something new. As one teacher articulated, “I think the purpose of the grant is to somehow restructure the school.” Indeed, most teachers I talked with were keenly suspicious that the SIG program was a cover for something larger—some sort of bigger agenda in which their participation was not genuinely designed for their betterment or the betterment of their students or the local community.
This notion of the expendable individual is a bit of a paradox within my data and, I think, within liberalism. On the one hand, the individual is of central importance and matters greatly. But on the other hand, individuals are expendable. This is precisely why an analysis of race and power matter. The primacy versus expendability of individuals is not random or coincidental. Particular individuals matter a lot. Particular other individuals do not and are expendable. Consider the fact that policy makers never set up SIG-like programs in their own children’s schools. Nor do they treat their own children as guinea pigs for the latest round of school-reform efforts. Their children are safely ensconced in schools that do not need the “help” offered through programs like the School Improvement Grant. Their children are protected from the casualties that result from such efforts. Children of color and those from low-income communities are the obvious casualties. But still, every student, educator, and community is harmed when whiteness is reified through liberalism.
Critical race scholars have convincingly argued that the discourse of liberal individualism has at times served as a cover for coordinated collective group interests. In other words, the courts, policy makers, and anyone with power can easily and effectively employ liberalism to rationalize decisions. In the case of School Improvement Grants, the framing of schools as individuals, the ensuing competition, and the appeal to social change are all attractively packaged within a classical liberal paradigm. It is difficult to argue against this neatly bundled reform model. Why, for example, would one want to question additional funds being funneled to schools serving youth of color and those from low-income families? Similarly, why would we be critical of a program that asks educators to provide traditionally ill-served students with better instruction and higher expectations for academic achievement? Indeed, to raise these questions seems to position one as antiequality, antiopportunity, and even anti-American. This is the seductiveness of liberalism.
But it bears repeating: The liberal discourse has often served as a cover for coordinated group interests. So whose group interests are being protected here? What group interests are being at once obscured and reinforced through SIG policy? In other words, if certain individuals are expendable within liberalism and under SIG policy, we should ask ourselves what the system gains by expelling them. The gain is the erosion of a public commitment to the good of the whole. Or, put another way, the gain is the erosion of community. Without a public commitment to what is good, equitable, and just for everyone, we become even further committed to the individual. Individualism—and the ideologies of meliorism and egalitarianism that correspond to individualism—is both normalized and legitimized. Liberalism, then, is validated and further entrenched.
If everybody matters, and matters equally, then the call for equity and for real reform against whiteness would be easy to make. Instead, under a liberal framework, individuals matter, and certain individuals matter a lot more than other individuals. This is foundational to our economic system, and it plays out in countless instances in our nation’s history. Manifest destiny is a prime example of the way liberalism privileges certain individuals over others and over the good of a community; it is also a prime example of the meliorist element because “progress” was viewed as necessary and morally right. The SIG effort is similarly positioned as necessary and the obviously right thing given the failure of many schools and students across the nation. But the moral expediency of liberal approaches often masks the loss incurred.
Within the SIG reform model, there will be both winners and losers. A few will succeed, and many will fail. The successes provide evidence of an effective system. They allow educators and reformers to say, “See, it IS possible to turn around a school given these conditions!” The failures, however, also serve an important purpose. They provide a target; they give us something to keep working on, to keep feeling good about our efforts, because at least we are trying. We have a project, and liberalism thrives on projects. Remember that meliorism is the idea that we can improve society, society’s institutions, and our individual selves with a little hard work and determination. If we just keep at it, surely change will occur. The appeal of change and the assumption that progress is always good masks the casualties that occur. Equally problematic is that liberalism does not implore us to ensure equity now. Instead, it encourages us to just keep trying to slowly chip away at what is actually systemic, institutionalized, and pervasive.
These concerns are exacerbated because not just any teachers and students are impacted by SIG policy. The teachers who are impacted are those in schools serving youth who have been the least well served for generations. Also impacted are the communities whose educational debt (Ladson-Billings 2006) has yet to be repaid and is, in fact, compounding daily, monthly, and annually. Liberalism structures this arrangement so that it seems natural, commonsensical, and even ethical. Schools that have been awarded SIG funds are most often urban high schools serving youth of color and those from low-income communities. Consistent with this trend, Birch serves more than 90 percent students of color and 80 percent students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. This is not insignificant.
Engaging in a liberal project like the federal SIG program in schools that house students of color and those from low-income communities maintains patterns of inequity within our system of schooling. These youth are not gaining access to the kind of schooling provided to privileged White youth. Instead, they are meant to feel lucky to have been given the opportunity to improve their lot. They are meant to feel hopeful that the playing field really is leveling out. They are meant to believe that their hard work will prevail. And they will be held responsible for the end result.
But the end result is not really within any individual student’s, teacher’s, or school’s control. Instead, the results are largely influenced by our ideologies and systems of race dominance. By centering individuals, SIG policy nicely obscures structural arrangements, maintains an ideology of goodwill, and accepts the ensuing snail’s pace of reform. As a system of racial dominance, whiteness is therefore not only engaged but actually reinforced through School Improvement Grants. Whiteness maintains power and privilege by perpetuating and legitimating the status quo while simultaneously maintaining a veneer of neutrality, equality, and compassion: This is precisely what we see happening with School Improvement Grants. Whiteness encourages people to behave in particular ways that then reify whiteness; the result is that youth, families, communities, and educators are all buried in the toxic soil of whiteness.
So what happens to SIG policy in a real school? What happens when liberal tropes of the individual and the social change embedded in the SIG policy hit the ground and intersect with actual people and communities with varying interests and investments? In the first round of funding for the federal SIG program, Birch was awarded monies to embark on a three-year reform project. As an external evaluator hired by the district to provide feedback on the SIG efforts,1 I visited the school and conducted lengthy interviews with the majority of Birch teachers, staff, and administrators on four separate occasions over the three-year grant. The following sections look squarely at Birch educators’ narratives about their experiences with the School Improvement Grant over the course of two years. Birch is typical of the vast majority of schools that have been awarded SIG funds across the United States in terms of student demographics and achievement levels, so it is important to examine how this common educational reform effort is educated in and educating for whiteness.
Data from my school visits and conversations with teachers and administrators highlight a tense environment with multiple contests for control, struggles to make meaning, and intersecting allegiances. In the end, the ensuing divisiveness diverts educators’ energy away from what really matters—teaching children and ensuring that they learn. So the contests for control and struggles over meaning are, perhaps paradoxically, nice diversions. Equity gets lost in the shuffle, and whiteness continues to reign.
Implementing the School Improvement Grant at Birch was fraught with ongoing contests of power, struggles to determine authority, and negotiations over meaning. Both teachers and administrators readily articulated these dynamics and some of the problematic outcomes they produced within the school. Contests for control began with the introduction of the SIG program to Birch teachers, advanced through the first two years of implementation as teachers and administrators continued to butt heads, and culminated in the departure of half of the teaching force and the principal after the second year of funding. Every player in these contests for control relied on liberal tenets of individualism, meliorism, and egalitarianism. The contests were only possible because students of color become objects of the struggle. The active players (here, teachers and administrators) obtained their sense of self, their identity, and their individual agency through the dismissal of students and communities of color as having any role within the SIG efforts. In the end, liberalism ultimately collapsed in on itself within the walls of Birch.
Almost every teacher at Birch expressed significant concern over the initial application for the School Improvement Grant. The grant application was written by central office personnel and shared with teachers after the grant had been secured. Reflecting on the application, one teacher explained, “There’s a lot of negative stuff about us teachers that [isn’t] . . . even true. This person who wrote the grant didn’t even ever talk to us personally and has never been in my classroom.” In another conversation, a second teacher echoed the same frustration: “It almost sounded like they had to write something to get the grant. So they had to prove that we are incompetent and unable to handle things when that is an outright lie . . . it was inappropriate.” Another shared, “We had no confidence that any of it had any sense of reality. It was just put in there to get this federal grant . . . and it didn’t really reflect the school,” and still another noted, “I would say there are misrepresentations. And that is angering.” Absent from the Birch teachers’ discontent were the students and communities Birch is meant to serve. The struggle here is over the right to determine how teachers (primarily, though not exclusively, White) are represented. Are they competent, highly qualified, and effective? Do they know their students and the local community? Are they able to deliver the kind of education that is needed at Birch? These are the kinds of questions teachers felt were at stake. Whiteness is employed vis-à-vis the liberal investment in individual autonomy and authority to define oneself.
On the other side of this struggle over the SIG application sat the central office administrator who wrote and secured the grant for the district. A middle-aged White woman, Ms. Floyd articulated a staunch commitment to the need for change at Birch. Her commitment was framed around the need for individual teachers who share the Zion School District’s “vision that every child will succeed” and who are “able to get the results we need to see at [Birch].” She was not unique in her assessment that many Birch teachers had “not gotten the job done” and were more interested in union solidarity and the mantra of site-based leadership than they were in student learning and success. Ms. Floyd admitted that the initial SIG application could have benefitted from greater input from teachers, but she also pointed out that the application was due under a very tight time frame and that teachers were off contract for the summer when she was working on the application.
Central to Ms. Floyd’s perspective is the call for change and an appeal to particular outcomes at Birch. Standing in the way of progress is the teachers’ union as well as the often-heard critique of veteran teachers who are “stuck in their ways.” Ms. Floyd appeals to meliorism and the notion that change and progress are good and necessary. Here again we see a White actor determining the meaning and processes of change; still absent are youth and communities of color who recede into the background as objects of the change.
The ways the application represented Birch teachers and Birch as an institution was extremely troubling for teachers, but they were also troubled by the process through which the application and initial implementation were handled. There was a strong feeling among teachers that the grant was “imposed on the school” by central office leaders, and that it failed to build on successes the school had experienced in the past and current strengths in the school. Many teachers shared one colleague’s sentiment: “We have this grant because it was imposed on us. The reason that the school was picked was because it had a history up until last year, the year before the grant, of not making Adequate Yearly Progress. But basically it was imposed on us.”
Two years into the grant (which was funded for a total of three years), most Birch teachers continued to resist buying into it. One teacher reflected on the grant at the end of the second year of funding and shared that it “has a very punitive feel . . . instead of like, ‘let’s get in this together,’ instead of inspiring leadership . . . ‘If you’ve been here and you’re inside the building, you don’t have professional knowledge; we’re going to bring it to you from the outside’ . . . It makes you not have confidence in even yourself sometimes.” The ongoing struggle teachers identified to determine the direction of SIG implementation was a direct assault on their individual autonomy, sense of purpose, and right to control the education offered in their school. These things are entitlements under a liberal understanding of what it means to be “American.” Attempting to (re)gain them is a natural response of self-determined individuals.
On the other side of this contest for the natural rights of individuals sat the Birch principal, who was hired by central office leaders (primarily Ms. Floyd) and brought to Birch as a condition of the School Improvement Grant (recall that replacing the principal is a requirement when accepting SIG funding). Mr. Layton was a popular and, by all accounts, effective principal in another west-side school before being recruited to Birch to lead the SIG efforts. A tall White man with a quiet voice, he walked a fine line between articulating his ultimate role as the school leader and the value of teacher leadership. Mr. Layton had spent years navigating the Zion School District’s context of site-based leadership and a generally powerful union, and he knew the challenges involved with taking the top position at Birch when the School Improvement Grant was awarded in 2010. After struggling during the first year of the School Improvement Grant’s implementation to “bring everyone on board,” he entered the second year of the program with a vocal “good riddance” to the many teachers who continued to voice discontent. In an ironic twist, he was relocated after the second year of the grant by central office leaders. On this moving stairway, individual leaders get bypassed by other individual leaders. Still lost are the students, their families, and the larger community.
These contests for control resulted in an absence of solidarity between teachers and the school administrative team. This divisiveness emerged in the initial days of the grant when teachers were upset about and resisted what they called a “top-down approach to the SIG leadership and implementation.” As the grant progressed, some teachers began to feel like teacher input was more valued, but others did not, and the lack of trust and cohesion between teachers and administrators persisted. As one teacher explained, “We have no input on what is going to happen. Now we’re starting to get a little input, but at first it was just what somebody else thought we needed. And it’s still for the most part true.” Another shared, “We are being listened to, but I don’t feel like that matters. . . . The follow-through is ‘Thanks for sharing; we understand a lot of you feel this way, but we’re going to go ahead and do this other way anyway’ . . . it’s not impacting decisions.” And still a third noted,
I personally don’t feel safe. I think other people feel less safe than I do. So, yeah, there’s not a lot of trust in the building right now, not [in] . . . the administration here, not [in] . . . the administration downtown . . . there was sort of like a turnaround in the middle of the year where it went from only top down to “hey, you guys could have done what you wanted, this is all up to you, nothing is up to us.” And, you know, we had a big one-day meeting about that, which did not instill any confidence for me because it was a complete turnaround from the way things were, and we’re already in the deep, you know.
Considering the overall impact of the SIG program, a fourth teacher suggested, “I think the psychology of the grant needs to flip from teachers feeling like they’re being punished to teachers feeling like they’re being supported and valued.”
The entire first year of the SIG program at Birch was spent negotiating these contests of control. Were teachers or administrators right in their interpretation? Whose grant was this? Who decided how implementation was going to look? How would disagreements be handled? In some ways, the answers to these questions do not really matter. What matters is the way in which whiteness operates and gets strengthened through teachers’ and administrators’ investments in liberalism. The resulting anger, distrust, lack of buy-in, and divisiveness was palpable each time I entered the front doors of Birch. These contests for control and struggles to make meaning left little room for the Birch community to strategize about how to shape the School Improvement Grant into something genuinely useful and powerful. This, in fact, demonstrates how liberalism is a well-functioning mechanism of whiteness. Absent an effective use of the SIG program to dismantle structural inequity, patterns of success and failure become acceptable and rationalized through ideologies of meritocracy, equal opportunity, and individualism.
Liberal notions of the individual and social change facilitate these struggles for control, the ensuing divisiveness, and the value placed on individual autonomy and empowerment. On the one hand, we have an abstract, idealized notion of the individual. This is the individual we find referenced in policy, heralded in success stories, and employed in appeals to individual rights and protections. On the other hand, we have real, actually existing individuals—individuals who do not always conform to the trope operationalized in liberal discourse. These individuals struggle to achieve the autonomy, rights, and protections espoused in liberalism’s idea of the individual. These individuals enter contests that they cannot all win—contests that result in divisiveness rather than solidarity. What does this have to do with whiteness? The tension between the individual as liberal trope and the individual as a material reality is racialized. The idealized notion of the individual is figuratively, and often literally, White, while the material reality of the individual is not.
The awarding of SIG funds mandates that schools employ some system of merit-based pay for teachers. Linking one’s compensation to specific job-related outcomes is a long-established practice in many industries, but it is a relatively new device being employed in schools. As the name suggests, merit-pay systems are perhaps a logical outcome of our society’s allegiance to meritocracy. Merit pay is also consistent with the liberal notion that individuals work to maximize pleasure and are thus motivated by rewards for their labor. But critiques of employing merit-pay systems in schools include that it is difficult to directly link student learning solely to teacher practice, that student test performance may not be an accurate measure of either student learning or teacher effectiveness, that teacher quality is impacted by multiple factors not easily measured, and that teachers are not (or should not be) motivated by financial rewards. Because one of the primary mechanisms for using the SIG funds at Birch was to award merit pay to teachers, I want to explore what merit pay came to mean for teachers, how it maps onto the themes of liberalism, and what its implications are for whiteness.
At Birch, merit pay was composed of two strategies. All teachers could earn a bonus if the entire school met certain achievement levels on the state’s standardized math, language arts, and science tests. In addition, teachers who taught the “core assessed subjects” of math, language arts, and science could earn another bonus at the end of the year if their particular students met certain achievement levels on the state tests. The first set of bonuses was figured and awarded to the school based on school-wide test performance. The additional bonus was figured and awarded to individual teachers based on individual student test performance. Whether at the school level or at the teacher level, this merit-pay system is a clear iteration of individualism, since it measures individual performance and rewards individuals. Through the merit-pay system, the School Improvement Grant presumes student achievement on standardized tests is solely an individually based act. Within this framework, test performance has no connection to systemic patterns of race dominance or power.
Teachers felt strongly that the merit-pay system resulted in a division of the teachers at Birch. As one teacher shared, “They divided the teachers big time. Some teachers are more important than others.” The administrative team concurred, but they voiced only minimal concern over this outcome. Almost every teacher with whom I spoke expressed concerns about the divisiveness of the merit-pay system. They were concerned about the impact these divisions had on the sense of community within the school, the absence of collaborative relationships between teachers from different content areas and grade levels, and the resulting feelings of stress and isolation among teachers and throughout the entire school. Most teachers felt there was a division between the teachers who taught “core assessed” subjects (i.e., language arts, math, and science) and those who did not (everything else—from social studies to art, physical education, and so on). Most teachers and administrators attributed the divisiveness to the merit-pay system, since core-assessed teachers had the opportunity to earn a bonus that was twice as large as the bonus noncore, nonassessed teachers were able to earn.
What is ironic in all this is that the SIG model, and particularly the way merit pay was implemented at Birch, sorts teachers just as schooling sorts students. Through the operationalization of individualism via merit pay, Birch teachers are sorted and judged based on factors that largely lie outside their control. Although teachers see this sorting mechanism and its problematic outcomes among themselves, they do not see how schooling sorts their students every day. This irony illustrates the primary role of whiteness: critiquing sorting among a largely White teacher population does not call dominance into question, but critiquing racialized sorting among students does. In other words, merit-pay systems and the larger SIG reform model are structured so that students are lost while the focus centers on individual teachers and appropriately liberal issues.
An ongoing struggle related to the merit-pay system at Birch revolved around the meaning of the potential bonus at the end of the year. Teachers, with strong union support, made elaborate arguments about the additional time required in their work day and the corresponding absence of compensation for that time. Given the additional minutes they figured entered into their day, week, and year, they argued that if they were awarded the bonus, it was essentially compensation for the added time. If they were not awarded the bonus, however, they were “working for free” for many additional minutes, hours, and days throughout the year. Central office leaders and Birch’s administrative team had a very different perspective. They argued that teachers were paid an annual salary, not an hourly wage, and that they “signed on to the additional responsibilities of [SIG] at the beginning.” Administrators believed that teachers knew that the longer school days and additional days in the year would not be compensated under the “typical structure in which teachers are paid” but that the work was “needed to see the kind of results we want to see” and that it was “a requirement of the grant.” They added that Birch teachers had the opportunity to earn “far more than teachers in other schools in the district” if they got the merit-pay bonus.
Linked to the concerns around the additional time required by the grant were concerns among teachers and counselors that their time was used very differently and was highly structured by the school’s administrative team and central office leadership. The entire school counseling staff, for example, told me that they spent a majority of their time on scheduling and other administrative tasks. The counseling staff was concerned about how their time was being used under the SIG program, and they felt these changes were not to the students’ benefit. As one school counselor noted, “This [the School Improvement Grant] takes counselors away from kids and away from contributing to the school in positive ways.” Another counselor shared, “The [new, incoming students], especially, see us as schedulers, not as counselors.” Teachers also talked about how their work day was far more structured. Most days there were school-wide or area-wide meetings before school and other committee responsibilities and professional developments after school. In thinking about the impact of the School Improvement Grant on their work, teachers noted, “SIG has impacted my time,” and “my day is successfully structured.” Perhaps more important, teachers and other school staff felt they had very little input into decisions about how to best use time before and after school. These were issues that were decided at another level—either among the school’s leadership team or by the central office. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is yet another contest of control prompted by liberal tenets of autonomy and individual self-determination. Educators, as individuals with particular rights and entitlements, have strong investments in their time and the sense of control over that time.
The fallout of this merit-pay system was that time and money became central. Whether symbolically or literally, time and money figured prominently in teachers’ discourse and the ways both teachers and administrators understood the nature of SIG work and how that work should be rewarded. Teacher after teacher told me in our conversations that “I’m not doing my job better because I think I’m going to get a bonus at the end of the year; I’m not motivated by that. . . . If anything, I’m put off by that.” And yet, the majority of my conversations with teachers somehow related to merit pay and teacher time.
In addition, student placement was affected because if a student was moved from one teacher to the next, it was difficult to determine which teacher should be credited, or docked, with his or her test scores. After the first year of the School Improvement Grant, district and school leadership decided to develop a system to award merit pay that employed a formula based on how long students had been at Birch and with which particular teachers. Students’ bodies and learning were commodified into a particular point value, and then percentages were assigned to different classes and teachers based on where students had spent their time during the school year. Because the SIG program places so much importance on two areas—increased learning time in core tested subject areas and merit pay for teachers—school became almost solely about time and money. But time and money were diversions from the real issues at play. Just as the contests for control serve as liberal mechanisms of whiteness, so, too, do the attachments to time and money.
What were the consequences of these contests for control and negotiations of power within the Birch community? How were Birch students, largely youth of color and youth from low-income communities, impacted by the School Improvement Grant? Since the SIG program is framed as an effort to improve student achievement and defines student achievement by standardized test scores, the good news is that test scores did rise for many students at Birch. The school made adequate yearly progress in both math and language arts after the first year of the grant, and scores improved slightly again after the second year. The bad news, however, is that relationships, community, climate, and health were all significantly compromised at Birch. The most striking pattern in my conversations with Birch teachers over the course of two years was the low morale and toxic climate throughout the school—a climate that was strikingly different than what I experienced five years earlier.
The divisiveness among adults at Birch, combined with the exhaustion experienced by many teachers due to the longer school days, additional meetings, and subsequent increase in the amount of work they took home, led to extremely low morale among the majority of teachers at Birch. By most accounts, morale was “the lowest it’s been in years.” Teachers described the morale in a number of ways, and these descriptions were consistent during the entire first two years of the grant:
- • Teacher 1: “Teacher morale is at the lowest that I have ever seen it. Teachers are tired. They’re burned out. They’re stressed.”
- • Teacher 2: “I’m so demoralized right now. I feel like this grant is destroying me, and it’s destroying the school. It’s destroying all my teacher friends, and it’s destroying the kids.”
- • Teacher 3: “I just think it’s like being in a pressure cooker, and that’s not conducive to having the kind of positive, supportive, and energetic atmosphere you need to raise student achievement.”
- • Teacher 4: “It’s not easy to work here, and it is draining at times, but when you feel like you are going nowhere, when you don’t have goals, you don’t have a vision, you see things are not going anywhere, you’re working hard but where’s it going? And it’s like on an emotional level, it’s a lot more draining.”
In addition, teachers believed that the morale was impacting the entire Birch community, and they pointed to support staff and substitute teachers as evidence of this. A number of teachers shared that they had observed substitute teachers “walk out in the middle of the day” and “refuse to come back” to Birch; this was not something teachers had witnessed in prior years. Additionally, teachers shared that the “support staff” was “very unhappy” at Birch; the janitors, for example, were extremely frustrated at the condition in which students left the school and the lack of behavioral expectations both during and after school.
Many teachers commented on the escalation of problematic student behaviors; as one Birch veteran noted, “I have never seen the kids so rude or act so entitled, and the graffiti is just getting worse and worse, and the damage too.” Teachers explained that their students said that graffiti, fights, student absences, and other problematic behaviors had escalated because “they [the students] are angry; they don’t want to be here longer than everybody else; they feel like they’re being punished.” When students are talked about, it is largely in the context of their “bad” behaviors from the perspective of teachers. Administrators were quick to counter these representations of students; instead, they invoked “bad” teachers as the root of most behavioral problems at Birch.
Never articulated in these contests for control and alternate meanings among teachers and administrators are the complexities of schooling, the role of schools as sorting institutions, or the social reproduction embedded and reified in our educational system. These factors are the fuel for structured, patterned, and pervasive inequity. This fuel and the subsequent inequity provide the soil in which whiteness thrives. It thrives, in part, because of the way liberal tenets are naturalized, and the resulting struggles and divisiveness are understood as the normal course of events. In fact, when I talked to school and central office leaders about these patterns, I was repeatedly told that it was “part of the process” and that “SIG schools across the country are experiencing similar challenges.” But if we are able to remove the assumption of normalcy and instead center the pursuit of equity, we might be more compelled to educate against, rather than for, whiteness.
Another measure of the impact of the School Improvement Grant can be seen in teacher attrition. After each of the first two years of the SIG program, somewhere between one-quarter and one-third of the teaching staff left Birch. In other words, after two years of the reform effort, at least half, and potentially two-thirds, of Birch teachers were replaced by new teachers. Most of these departures were by veteran teachers who had spent the majority of their teaching careers at Birch. Most of them also explained that they had purposely chosen to teach at Birch because of the community it served, that they hoped to return to Birch “when this mess is straightened out,” but that they had to leave to maintain their own physical and mental health. Most of the newly hired teachers were in the early years of their careers, and all of them were on provisional contracts at Birch. Clearly, the loss of veteran teachers and the introduction of newer teachers are not necessarily or always problematic. Indeed, it is often the case that newer teachers facilitate greater student learning and improved test scores. But an exodus of teachers to the extent seen at Birch should at least raise some red flags and prompt conversation. I saw no evidence that this was what happened at Birch.
Students were also lost through the School Improvement Grant because they either became passive objects or were entirely absent in teacher and administrator narratives about the School Improvement Grant at Birch. Through the contests for control, the struggles to make meaning, and the displays of autonomy, we rarely saw students or an indication that this work was really about students and their communities. Part of what happens when schools are made into individuals is that real individuals get lost. In the case of the SIG program, the transformation of schools into individuals obscures the role of students (and, to some extent, teachers) as individuals. But the other thing that happens—and this was evident at Birch—is that students are not really privy to the status of individuals within a racialized, liberal framework. As students of color, they do not factor into the idealized notion of the individual as a free-acting, autonomous, self-determined consumer with rights and entitlements worth protecting. While this may seem antithetical to liberalism’s central concern with the individual, it is actually wholly consistent when viewed through the lens of whiteness. Race and power are never not at work.
Returning to the teacher’s quote that opened this chapter, we can see that his comment about the School Improvement Grant “making us more different” despite being aimed at “closing the achievement gap” is significant on multiple levels. First, given the policy itself, the reform model advanced, and the liberalism undergirding the SIG framework, it is questionable whether the mandate is to really extinguish the proverbial achievement gap. Surely the intent is to see some schools “turn around,” but the intent also seems to include the failure of many schools and many students. This is the natural outcome of equal opportunity and meritocracy. Second, differences were actually exacerbated when SIG policy entered Birch. Contests for control, struggles over meaning making, and the ensuing divisiveness should not be underestimated as an insignificant “part of the process.” Students were lost in all this and literally left behind. Indeed, these outcomes may be a natural part of the process when liberalism undergirds efforts purportedly aimed to bring about equity, but it is this naturalness that should alert us to the toxicity and ensuing harm. The lesson seems to be that although School Improvement Grants may raise student test scores, they destroy schools, students, and teachers in the process. Change is clearly hard, but here it is also destructive. Business as usual is much easier, but as previous chapters highlight, the status quo is also destructive.
The liberalism undergirding SIG policy and practice cannot be divorced from the neoliberal transformation of schools taking place across the nation. Describing similar federally driven school-reform efforts in Chicago, Pauline Lipman (2011) articulates this transformation and its implications:
Neoliberals naturalize market forms, processes, and ways of thinking as the only way to organize society (Leitner, Peck, and Sheppard 2007). Neoliberal policy discourses are thus “politically neutral,” based on technical criteria of “efficiency” and “effectiveness,” thereby excluding discussion of values, philosophies, and social interests. Pragmatism or doing “what works” is the order of the day, allowing those in power to dismiss criticism as politically motivated, ideologically driven, and change resistant. Discourses of change are mobilized to naturalize certain kinds of change and to paint the opposition as defenders of the status quo. President Obama evoked this trope when he contended criticism of his neoliberal Race-to-the-Top, federal-education program “reflects a general resistance to change. We get comfortable with the status quo” (Obama 2010, 11–12).
The “discourse of change” was similarly adopted by the Birch administrative team and central office leadership. I was told numerous times that the SIG reforms were “necessary” and “if teachers aren’t on board, good riddance to them, they can go elsewhere.” Echoing this sentiment were comments from individuals in leadership positions about “a lot of dead weight” and “resistance to do anything new” among the teaching staff at Birch. Teachers were well aware of these discourses among their leaders and highly offended by them. Most teachers I spoke with admitted that some teachers fit that category (which would be true at any school, they added), but that it was an inaccurate representation of the majority of Birch teachers.
The problem, as Lipman points out, is that the discourse of change adopted by SIG leaders becomes the default position so that any questioning or criticism of SIG work gets immediately labeled as “resistant to change,” “stuck in their ways,” or “obstructionist.” This discourse of change is compelling. “If neoliberals have succeeded in appropriating the discourse of change, in part this is because the power to act as a consumer has resonance in the face of entrenched failures of the welfare-state model and administration of public education, particularly in cities (Pedroni 2007)” (Lipman 2011, 65). Clearly, change is needed in education, and most of all in the spaces meant to serve youth of color and low-income youth. But this discourse of change has become a powerful tool of whiteness because of the way it shapes common sense and thus policy and practice in schools. The discourse of change implies a decidedly nice kind of change—that is, change that fails to acknowledge systemic inequity and pervasive whiteness. As we see through the implementation of the School Improvement Grant at Birch, change is defined in particular ways and through difficult negotiations of power, control, and meaning making. Too often, students and systems of power are lost in the race to engage an idealized notion of change.
The liberal discourse surrounding the School Improvement Grant is seductive, which is partly why it is so hard to see that it is also problematic. The seductiveness of these liberal tropes and tenets was not lost on me as an evaluator, researcher, and writer. I found myself enthralled with the quest for “truth” in which the teachers and administrators were engaged. I went around and around trying to figure out who was accurately representing what was “really happening at Birch.” I found myself usually on the side of the teachers but also tentatively sympathizing with administrators. This is exactly what whiteness wants. This is how whiteness maintains its absent presence among educators. Lost in the so-called quest for truth is an active commitment to justice and real, material equity. This is not unlike whiteness writ large. Whiteness is also seductive—at least for those of us who benefit from it. Whiteness is strategic in that it is not cast as a seductive, winner-take-all sort of phenomenon. Rather, it is nicely cast as neutral, as open to everyone, even as empathetic to the downtrodden and compassionate toward those who may need a little boost.
It is here that we can see how whiteness, liberalism, and neoliberalism intertwine. Rather than simply abstract ideas with no bearing on reality—on schools, on teachers, and on students—whiteness and liberalism shape the way we engage and are in turn engaged by policy and practice. With a grounding in classical liberalism and related notions of the individual and social change, “neoliberals redefined democracy as choice in the marketplace and freedom as personal freedom to consume . . . Competitive individualism is a virtue and personal accountability replaces government responsibility for collective social welfare” (Lipman 2011, 10). Indeed, the SIG program operationalizes these characteristics: Schools compete for funds, and students and teachers consume resources under the assumption that they will produce particular results. Individualism frames everything from the grant application to merit pay to student success, and individuals are held responsible for outcomes largely dependent on structural factors. What is important to understand here are the foundational principles of classical liberalism and the way liberalism shapes what becomes common sense.
The SIG policy is a structure created by someone else on which individual teachers and students are judged. The policy and overall reform model act as a seemingly neutral, and actually generous, effort to “improve” and “turn around” schools. It is, in part, this supposed neutrality and goodwill that educators at Birch have bought into. They have embraced the idea that individual teachers matter, irrespective of the larger process of schooling. It makes sense that educators would buy into the idea that they matter; it would, in fact, be surprising if they did not believe this. Most teachers become teachers because they want to matter in the lives of students. Our daily work has meaning because we believe that what we do matters fundamentally. What teachers do does matter fundamentally, but it is not all that matters. And perhaps unfortunately, what teachers do matters much less if structures and systems are in place that exert intense pressure to maintain whiteness. Educators have also bought into the structure of the School Improvement Grant because their pay is tied to the idea that they matter and what they do matters more than anything else. Even teachers who are not primarily motivated by increased pay can easily get swept up in the tide of school reform that pounds particular notions of the individual and social change into the shore.