“It Isn’t Even Questioned”
Equality as Foundational to Schooling and Whiteness
In the conversation on race, there is the danger that we merely reproduce a liberal ideology of racial containment . . . What we don’t need is the crass and deceitful politics of toleration that masks the sources of real power, that conceals the roots of real inequality, that ignores the voices of the most hurt, and that is indifferent to the faces of the most fractured.
—Michael E. Dyson in Chennault, “Giving Whiteness a Black Eye”
As has been alluded to in previous chapters, most teachers, principals, and other educational leaders share a steadfast belief in meritocracy—that is, that the worth and success of an individual is based solely on the merits of his or her work. Meritocracy assumes that a level playing field exists in society and its institutions and that everyone has access to the same opportunities to get ahead in this world. Meritocracy’s foundation is rooted in notions of the individual, competition, and neutrality. Indeed, our entire system of schooling is based on the notion of meritocracy. Grading, grade-level advancement, standardized forms of assessment, and admission to selective schools all rest on the assumption of meritocracy, and meritocracy cannot be divorced from the concept of equality. Equality must exist for meritocracy to function; otherwise, we cannot be sure that rewards are really being earned as a result of effort and achievement.
Equality and meritocracy are foundational ideologies for diversity-related policies and practices. They are also central to the “politics of toleration” that engages niceness and sustains inequity. This chapter explores how equality, as a mechanism of whiteness, operates in the diversity-related efforts at both Birch and Spruce Secondary Schools. Although educators at the two schools subscribe to different understandings of equality, both ultimately result in the reification of whiteness.
Equality is a long-standing and largely unquestioned American value, but equality is not the simple or obvious concept that it is often assumed to be by those who casually accept it. Critical race theorists draw our attention to the difference between restrictive formal equality and expansive substantive equality. Whereas restrictive formal equality is based on the sameness of a rule or policy, expansive substantive equality looks to the results or outcomes of rules and policies. Another way to think about this is to consider the difference between inputs and outputs in a given situation. In her analysis of antidiscrimination law, Kimberlé Crenshaw (1988) explains the distinction between a restrictive and expansive view of equality: “The expansive view stresses equality as a result and looks to real consequences for African Americans. . . . The restrictive view, which exists side by side with this expansive view, treats equality as a process, drowning the significance of actual outcomes. The primary objective of antidiscrimination law, according to this view, is to prevent future wrongdoing rather than to redress present manifestations of past injustice. ‘Wrongdoing,’ moreover, is seen primarily as isolated actions against individuals rather than as societal policy against an entire group” (Delgado and Stefancic 2001, 38). Restrictive formal equality focuses on sameness in treatment between and among individuals and groups who share similar characteristics. As Crenshaw highlights, restrictive formal equality assumes that equality previously existed, so the move is back to the starting point (i.e., an assumed equality), rather than to correct a previously existing inequality. Ideally, restrictive formal equality would produce overall equality, but this is impossible because it rests on the faulty assumption of an equal starting point. Expansive substantive equality recognizes that cases are very rarely alike because of the historical and persistent differences in social conditions between and among various groups. Thus expansive substantive equality stresses results and outcomes that are fair or just—qualities that are not always easy to determine or agree on.
Restrictive formal equality is the equality typically meant in popular discourse and policy, but critical race theorists have critiqued the standard of restrictive formal equality on a number of grounds. These critiques include that its focus on sameness is limited because of the persistent and pervasive social construction of race, class, and gender; that although it can remedy the most extreme and shocking forms of inequality, it can do nothing about the business-as-usual, everyday forms of inequality that people experience constantly; and that it masks expansive substantive and pervasive inequality. In most educators’ appeals to equality, we privilege equality of opportunity over equitable outcomes, processes over results, colorblindness over race consciousness, and individual freedoms over group experiences. Furthermore, as Derrick Bell reminds us in his analysis of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, “The danger with our commitment to the principle of racial equality is that it leads us to confuse tactics with principles. The principle of gaining equal educational opportunity for Black children was and is right. But our difficulties came when we viewed racial balance and busing as the only means of achieving that goal. At a much earlier point than we did, we should have recognized that our tactic was making it harder rather than easier to reach our goal” (Bell 2004, 189). In a similar way, most educators’ commitment to restrictive formal equality shapes our daily policies, practices, and discourses and thus limits the pursuit of expansive substantive equality.
This distinction between restrictive formal equality and expansive substantive equality builds on my discussion of equity in the introductory chapter. The restrictive formal equality talked about here is what is typically understood as simply “equality.” And expansive substantive equality is very similar to what I’ve been calling equity—or, in other words, that which is fair and just (Brayboy, Castagno, and Maughan 2007). That which is fair is typically not the same as that which is equal. Genuinely pursuing equity often requires unequal distributions of resources in order to address long-standing and persistent inequalities. Returning to Bell’s point about the Brown case, when we confuse tactics with principles, we also confuse equity and equality. If our ultimate goal is equity, we cannot continue to emphasize simple equality.
Equality is both ahistorical and acontextual, and as such, it is unable to address inequity. An ahistorical and acontextual understanding of student achievement, for example, fails to account for the ways in which achievement was initially measured through racist exams and normed against particular groups. It also fails to recognize the importance of the differential access youth have to good schools, high-quality teachers, appropriate and challenging texts, and culturally relevant education. The ahistorical and acontextual nature of equality is highlighted in Gloria Ladson-Billings’s distinction between “achievement gaps” and “the educational debt” (Ladson-Billings 2006). Thinking solely about a current gap in achievement between different racialized groups is very different from thinking about the multiple historical, economic, health, political, and cultural factors that contribute to both how we understand and how we measure achievement in schools. These different ways of thinking about achievement lend themselves to different approaches and strategies for moving forward. The pursuit of equity requires an understanding of the historical, persistent, and structural nature of oppression and dominance. Losing sight of history and context results in a skewed—although much nicer—perception of the problem. But it is exactly this nicely skewed perception that obscures whiteness and hides the need for equity.
Ruby Payne’s popularity among teachers across the nation illustrates the degree to which meritocracy and equality form the foundation of educators’ ideas about youth, communities, schooling, and opportunity. Teachers in the Zion School District participated in reading groups and workshops on Ruby Payne’s book A Framework for Understanding Poverty (1996). Payne’s book starts out by defining poverty as “the extent to which an individual does without resources” (Payne 1996, 16). According to Payne, the resources that are unavailable to youth living in poverty include “choosing and controlling emotional responses,” “believing in divine purpose,” and “having frequent access to adults who are appropriate” (ibid.). Payne goes on to explain the difference between “generational” and “situational” poverty; she is concerned with the first and notes that generational poverty “has its own culture, hidden rules, and belief systems” (64) that may “surface at school” in students who “are very disorganized, frequently lose papers, don’t have signatures”; “bring many reasons why something is missing”; “don’t do homework”; “are physically aggressive”; “only see part of what is on a page”; “can’t seem to get started”; “cannot monitor their own behavior”; “dislike authority”; and “talk back and are extremely participatory” (78).
In her discussion of how to improve the academic achievement of children who come from “generational poverty,” Payne highlights a number of “cognitive deficiencies” these children have. Her claims are bold and far reaching. She says, “These students have no consistent or predictable way of getting information. They only see about 50 percent of what is on a page. . . . They simply do not have the cognitive methodology for doing tasks or a systematic way to finish tasks” (123). Payne goes on to claim that children from low-income backgrounds have an “inability to hold two objects or two sources inside the head while comparing and contrasting” and have an “inability to know what stays the same and what changes” (124). She argues that “problem solving and other tasks are extremely problematic because students from poverty seldom have the strategies to gather precise and accurate information” and that “they have neither the vocabulary nor the concepts for spatial orientation” (123). Payne also makes claims about what low-income children value: “I find among students from poverty that time is neither measured nor heeded. Being somewhere on time is seldom valued. And time itself is not seen as a thing to be used or valued” (123). Overall, Payne suggests that educators are no longer able to “conduct school as we have in the past” because of the rising numbers of students who fit the characteristics she outlines.
Teachers at both Birch Secondary School and Spruce Secondary School relied heavily on Payne’s model and described their own work as needing to “build the cognitive capacities” of children from low-income backgrounds. Mr. Mecha, for example, explained that he had recently “read and learned much more about how living in poverty affects students.” He noted that this information has “helped me let things the students say go in one ear and out the other because they can say those things at home, and that’s related to their low-income backgrounds.” In a similar conversation, another teacher commented that “there’s the culture of poverty, and that’s a lot of what’s going on here at [Birch].”
The Zion School District is not unique in its use of Ruby Payne’s work. Her book has sold more than a million copies, and her company has offered workshops and presentations in every state and in ten different countries (ahaprocess.com). Indeed, I have encountered educators from at least six other districts in two additional states who have been introduced to Payne’s ideas through either district-led professional-development programs or courses in colleges of education. In every instance, educators were encouraged to engage Ruby Payne’s ideas as a way to more effectively serve “diverse students.”
Like most well-intended diversity efforts in schools, Payne’s work advances a “compassionate conservative approach” (Gorski 2006) that positions youth as victims of their family circumstances and thus in need of remediation at school. Payne’s work clearly rests on a deficit model and perpetuates deficit assumptions about youth from low-income communities and youth of color. The manifestation of her thinking can be seen in the teacher quotes in the previous paragraphs. This framework positions educators as “saviors” who “fix” students. In none of this thinking do we see recognition of structural or ideological dominance or a plan to address patterned inequity. Payne’s line of thinking and its operationalization by educators is indicative of—and results in—the reification of our education in whiteness.
The popularity of Payne’s framework among K–12 educators also highlights the insidiousness of our allegiance to meritocracy and equality. The rationale at work here is that if teachers focus on the “inputs” they are able to control—including the knowledge they impart to students, the teaching styles they employ, the communicative norms they establish in their classrooms, and the disciplinary approaches they engage—then equality has been achieved and meritocracy can function effectively. Then when there are winners and losers at the end (i.e., when certain students leave school without graduating and others collect awards and AP credits), we need not question why, who, or what won or lost, because our responsibility was fulfilled at the beginning of the race. The implied neutrality of schooling obscures what is actually a stacked competition. Further assumed in this model is that there will be losers—that is, educational reform is a zero-sum game in that some win at the expense of others. Although never named, whiteness thrives when meritocracy and equality are held in such high regard.
Ruby Payne’s work and its embrace by teachers at Birch and Spruce highlight the powerful appeal of equality and meritocracy as well as the danger in relying on these ideological workhorses of whiteness. It also, however, should raise questions about the extent to which equality and meritocracy are engaged similarly in very different school contexts. We know, for example, that schools are differently positioned in relation to mandates for standardized measures of success and accountability, so we might also expect some distinct articulations of, and engagements with, equality and meritocracy. This chapter explores how diversity-related efforts at Birch and Spruce rely on distinct understandings of equality. One central office administrator in the Zion School District begins to unpack some of the distinctions:
I think it goes back to east-west. If you look at our district demographics, there really is an east and west. I think the west side is really aware of the need [for diversity initiatives] and are running as fast as possible to be educated and to be aware and to know and not to be insensitive or to break someone’s cultural mores or whatever it might be. On the east side of town, I don’t think there is a sense of urgency. And I don’t think there is a real feel of need. . . . I really think it has to do with need. If there is a pressing need, then you make the effort and you . . . try to adjust your behaviors or your thought patterns. If you don’t, then I think it’s just too comfortable to stay where you are.
This administrator foreshadows some of the different issues at Birch and Spruce. The histories of the two communities, the contexts in which they are located, and their relationships to calls for accountability and standardization all contribute to distinct pressures related to diversity. As previous chapters have highlighted, whiteness operates in both schools. But here I explore the Spruce and Birch contexts independent of one another in order to illustrate how equality is engaged differently in the two schools.
While the distinction between restrictive formal equality (i.e., equality) and expansive substantive equality (i.e., equity) is important for understanding more obvious differences in diversity-related policy and practice, I want to suggest that restrictive formal equality actually takes multiple forms that are not immediately visible under this dichotomous framework. In fact, thinking about equality as either restrictive formal or expansive substantive leads to an analysis in which some diversity-related policy and practice may appear more equitable because it does not look like the obviously inequitable policy and practice seen in other places.
This is the case when examining some of the unique elements of Birch and Spruce Secondary Schools. Although restrictive formal equality shapes policy and practice at both Birch and Spruce, teachers at the two schools engage equality in distinct ways. These different manifestations of restrictive formal equality result in unique articulations of equality, power, culture, and merit, but both schools ultimately continue to educate for whiteness. Spruce educators employ a powerblind, colorblind formal equality; this is the restrictive formal equality that is articulated by critical race scholars. Birch educators employ a more race-conscious and power-conscious formal equality, but it falls short of engaging the systemic, institutional, and ideological nature of race and power. As such, it fails to educate against whiteness. While both ways of engaging equality are consistent with niceness, the race- and power-conscious formal equality undergirding Birch’s efforts begins to push the boundaries of what is typically understood as nice among educators.
The Zion School District at one time had a magnet model for its secondary schools, and Spruce served as the district’s magnet for English-language learner (ELL) students and services. Thus, although Spruce is located in an overwhelmingly White and middle-class to upper-middle-class neighborhood, for many years ELL students from around the district were bussed to Spruce and schooled in a setting with a critical mass of teachers who were both trained in and committed to the education of linguistically and racially diverse students. Five years prior to my research, and only after many heated conversations and much advocating on the part of the district’s more elite constituencies, the magnet model was disbanded, and the district’s secondary schools reverted back to “neighborhood” schools where students attended the school that was nearest their homes. This shift resulted in a number of dramatic and immediate changes to Spruce, including a significant drop in the numbers of ELL students and students of color, a significant drop in the number of teachers who were knowledgeable about and committed to diversity-related issues, and a (re)newed focus on the “neighborhood kids” who were largely White and middle class and who came from families with parents who had higher educational credentials.
The rationale behind the change from a magnet to a neighborhood school centered ideologies of equal opportunity, colorblindness and powerblindness, and individual rights. The predominantly White, middle-class parents who advocated for this change relied heavily on the appeal of providing all students with the same educational opportunities close to home, and they critiqued the magnet model as infringing on these opportunities and therefore on individual students’ and families’ rights to good local schools. This discourse is intimately tied to colorblind and powerblind perspectives that view students as individuals with few, if any, distinctions that have any relevance to the schooling they are offered. If students are simply viewed as students, not as students of color or English-language learners, then it follows that the schools to which they are assigned should simply be schools—not specialized schools designed to meet particular and specific needs. Furthermore, the restrictive formal view of equality is clear in its emphasis on the process of schooling that assumes neighborhood schools will serve all students equally well—as opposed to critically examining the results and outcomes that follow from this process to determine whether the process is moving toward greater equity.
Equality shaped many other aspects of schooling at Spruce. In what follows, I highlight some of the ways Spruce educators rely on what I call powerblind, colorblind formal equality. In this classic engagement with restrictive formal equality, Spruce educators were firmly rooted in meritocracy and assumed equal opportunity existed both within and outside of their school. They also operated within a deficit framework regarding the ELL students at Spruce. A handful of teachers who did recognize problems with the way ELL students were educated did not assume any responsibility to voice their concerns or act on their concerns. In every instance, niceness and whiteness were operating through policies and practices that privileged powerblind, colorblind formal equality as the driving ideology.
In its more recent role as an “east-side neighborhood school,” Spruce was widely regarded as one of the top secondary schools in the district, and Spruce educators were committed to providing what they perceived to be an excellent education to their students. What this meant in practice was that students were exposed to a fairly traditional curriculum that emphasized core curricular areas but also included creative outlets and diverse pedagogies. Although this “excellent education” seemed to be appealing to and meeting the perceived needs of the majority of White, middle-class students at Spruce, it was not meeting the needs of the English-language learners, nor was it moving toward greater equity within or outside of the school. Instead, excellence seemed to be defined by educational practices that maintained the status quo—a status quo that privileged the majority of White, middle-class families served by Spruce.
The mark of excellence among Spruce educators was an education that is both academically oriented and creative. During most of my classroom visits, I witnessed what appeared to be fairly typical lessons: graphing linear equations in a math class, discussing tectonic plates in a science class, conjugating verbs in a language class, writing poetry in a language arts class, and discussing westward expansion in a U.S. history class. The majority of the teachers I observed facilitated their classes with a high level of organization and order, and students were engaged in activities such as reading from texts, completing worksheets, note-taking, group work, and correcting homework. Most teachers also maintained a high level of consistency from day to day through the use of the same general schedule.
The classes I observed appeared to closely follow the state’s core curriculum and their assigned textbooks, but there was a fair amount of creativity in how lessons were taught and the types of educational activities in which students were engaged. Social studies classes, for example, regularly worked on projects such as writing “historical fictions,” designing imaginary “road trips” through Utah, and constructing newspapers for a particular historical period. A math class designed restaurant menus to learn about combinations and proportions, a language arts class wrote letters to students around the country, science classes researched the biographies of scientists to learn about their lives and discoveries, and a world language class designed and carried out interviews in Spanish with native Spanish-speaking students and staff at Spruce.
The frequency of creative assignments and class projects was mirrored in the extracurricular activities offered at Spruce. This focus on creativity and the arts highlights an important component of Spruce’s understanding of what counts as an excellent education. The arts were a major extracurricular focus among most teachers and administrators at Spruce. This was particularly salient when the Parent-Teacher Association and a select group of educators from Spruce decided to produce a “Broadway musical.” Although almost two hundred students were involved through either orchestra, drama, dance, or choir, I only observed six students of color and no students who were in the English-as-a-secondary-language (ESL) classes.
The absence of Latino, Spanish-speaking students in the musical production was not an isolated occurrence, but it went unquestioned in Spruce’s drive to shape its identity as an “excellent neighborhood school.” From its general curricular focus to its choices about engaging the arts and its overall décor, everything about Spruce exuded White, middle-class, and English-speaking norms. There was little overt awareness that these particular cultural norms permeated the school, and there was no discussion around the expectation of assimilation to those cultural norms that students likely experienced.
At Spruce, powerblind, colorblind formal equality shaped the way students were viewed and the way schooling was done. There was an assumed norm that centers students as individuals unaffected by particular identities and who, as a result, ought to be equally impacted by what is perceived to be a neutral and high-quality educational experience. As long as Spruce educators maintain the excellence they believe forms the foundation of their school, any student who enters through the school doors has the same opportunity and likelihood of success as any other student. This understanding is connected to deficit beliefs because when students do not succeed, it is they, their families, and their communities who are assumed to be at fault (Gorski 2006; Hyland 2005; L. Powell 1997). There was a shared understanding at Spruce that “what is excellent for one student is excellent for all students.” It is the simultaneous belief in the “normalcy” or “commonness” of what Spruce teachers do daily alongside the assumptions of meritocracy and equal opportunity that characterize the powerblind, colorblind formal equality seen at Spruce.
Though rooted in sameness, formal equality does allow recognition of, and some remediation around, difference. Recall that Spruce teachers did engage difference as it related to the language and social-class backgrounds of their students. These engagements were similarly framed by a powerblind, colorblind formal equality—a pattern that is highlighted in the ways Spruce teachers discussed and employed the book Seedfolks in the language arts program. This book is fairly explicit in addressing issues of language, culture, race, and social class, but teachers at Spruce engaged it under a powerblind, colorblind formal equality framework that emphasized meritocracy and equal opportunity. During an interview with a teacher who taught the ESL language arts class, Ms. Scott described this book and why she believed it was a particularly effective text with her ELL students:
One example of the books that I use in class is Seedfolks, and each chapter is different. Nearly everyone is a different person from a different country who has come to the United States to live; and if they haven’t come from another country, they’ve at least come from different parts of the United States, and so they are from different ethnic backgrounds. And we read that book and talk about all these different people. We talk about their traditions and a little bit about their culture; and again, I don’t think I do a great job with it, but it’s a nice book to start out the school year because some of the issues that are addressed in the book are issues that I think these kids are dealing with.
For example, there is a kid from Guatemala who says something to the effect of, “When you’re old and come to the United States, you come to be like a baby, and the babies or the kids turn to adults.” And he says that because he’s in eighth grade, and he has to do all the translating for his dad or his mom when they go to the store, or when they pay the rent, or when they have a problem with a landlord. Well, so many of my kids, that’s very familiar to them; they know what that’s like. The kid in the story says he learned English from watching TV. You know, my kids always get a big kick out of that because they say that really helped them. So they can relate to it more than something that’s totally just Western American. So, I see them liking it and enjoying it more, and I think maybe getting more out of it than maybe some other books.
Like her teacher colleagues, Ms. Scott understood the importance of using curricular materials that might strike a chord with students. As an ESL teacher, she believed Seedfolks was an especially important text for her recently immigrated students, because they could relate to some of the characters and stories found in the text.
But engaging texts with some relevance to students’ lives may still result in youth being educated in whiteness. If such texts are framed around notions of powerblind sameness, colorblind difference, equality, and meritocracy, they do little to question dominant power relations or disrupt the status quo. In fact, because they are embraced as “multicultural literature” or “diversity-related curriculum,” such materials actually engage whiteness even more dangerously than the Eurocentric canon. Because they are understood as diverse, multicultural, and relevant to students’ lives, they shelter schools from accusations of not providing an inclusive education. Including texts like Seedfolks means Spruce is being inclusive and “welcoming of diversity,” which in turn means they are providing an “equal education.” And providing an equal education is what schools and educators are supposed to do. Again, we see how whiteness works through good intentions and nice people.
Another language arts teacher at Spruce also used Seedfolks with her mainstream, predominantly White class. She began the book by reading the first few chapters aloud to the class. After a number of pages describing people who lived in poor, urban high-rises, she stopped to ask the class, “If they [i.e., the characters in the book] were living in a country club, how would it be different?” Some of the students responded with “less crowded,” “wouldn’t be gangs driving by,” “nicer,” and “more sophisticated.” The teacher broached the topic of social class by asking her students to compare a fictional low-income “project” and a “country club,” but she did not pursue an analysis of why some of those differences exist, how they are maintained, or what they indicate about social class in the United States.
Even a text that offers explicit opportunities for critically oriented and transformative learning is able to be framed in ways that fit educators’ beliefs about meritocracy and equality. Using a book like Seedfolks in a predominantly White school like Spruce may result in sensitizing students to the experiences of people who are different from them and in exposing students to multiple perspectives, but it falls short of critically examining current social realities and thinking through possibilities for social change when it is grounded in a colorblind, formal equality framework. This is an appropriately nice operating framework because it highlights how we might be more individually compassionate, but it does not suggest the presence of dominance or injustice. Acknowledging differences between people while simultaneously subscribing to an assumption of equality and the myth of meritocracy results in the general belief that the status quo is acceptable and those who are poor, unemployed, unhealthy, or uneducated have simply not taken advantage of the many opportunities available to them. Educating youth about differences between groups and communities without situating this knowledge within a larger context of how power, institutions, and everyday actions create and maintain those differences is a common practice that educates for whiteness.
Although ELL students made up a small percentage of the overall student body at Spruce, they offer another illustrative space for seeing powerblind, colorblind formal equality at work. Spruce had four teachers, and only a few more actual classes, that were designated as “ESL sheltered” and served the entirely Spanish-speaking, predominantly Mexican-origin students who qualified for these “services.” In general, the teachers who were ESL endorsed and worked with the small group of ELL students at Spruce felt that although they were doing what they could to support these students, there was a significant lack of support from other teachers and administrators at the school. Consistent with my observations at Spruce, many ethnographies of immigrants’ schooling experiences illustrate how most immigrants are exposed to a Eurocentric education that separates and marginalizes them, subtracts their rich cultural knowledge, and replaces it with “American” culture. Eurocentric education also fails to require high academic achievement and the development of a critical consciousness (see, for example, Gibson 1988; Lee 2005; Olneck 2004; Olsen 1997; Valdes 2001; Valenzuela 1999). Furthermore, powerblind, colorblind formal equality shapes the education provided to ELL students at Spruce. The value placed on meritocracy, the assumptions of deficit, and the concomitant absent sense of responsibility among teachers provide a fruitful context for an education in whiteness.
At Spruce, the four designated ESL teachers provided academic and social support within an ESL framework for this particular group of students. Spruce’s approach to educating its ELL students was aimed at facilitating the students’ rapid acquisition of English. None of the ESL teachers were fluent in a language other than English, and all instruction occurred in English. These teachers did allow students to converse in their native languages during “free time” and when a student helped to explain a concept to a peer who did not understand the English explanation, but the overwhelming emphasis was on English-language learning—with little or no effort made to ensure that students maintained or improved their literacy in their native language.
In Ms. Carol’s ESL math class, she developed word problems using students’ names and experiences that were relevant to them, such as figuring out their grade based on a number of exam scores or using various sports-related examples. This teacher also regularly asked the class things like, “So what does that mean [in everyday English words]?” She encouraged risk taking by suggesting that students guess if nobody knew an answer. If a student gave an answer that was true but not necessarily what Ms. Carol was looking for, she often said something along the lines of, “Yeah, I know where you’re getting that, but let’s think about it . . . [in some other way].” Although the ESL teachers recognized their own limitations in being able to communicate effectively with students given their own monolingualism, they explicitly supported the ESL model of education. These teachers cared deeply about their students and wanted to provide them with a high-quality education, but they clearly saw their goal as mainstreaming ELL students into the English-speaking dominant culture of the school. This is, of course, consistent with the school’s reputation and mission of preparing students for higher education, but it relies on a deficit model of ELL students rather than on an additive bilingual model.
Colorblind, formal equality is manifested in Spruce’s reliance on an ESL model and a focused goal of mainstreaming ELL students who are proficient in English. Like the previous examples, this approach to education privileges sameness and perpetuates the ideal of equal educational opportunity. The assumption is that if ELL students learn English as quickly as possible and are mainstreamed with their native-English-speaking peers, they will have all the privileges of the high-quality education Spruce offers, and thus they will benefit from those opportunities in the same ways their peers do.
Notions of equality and meritocracy are so entrenched here that it is difficult to see how they operate: If you believe that equal opportunity exists and that individuals will be rewarded for their success within an equal system, then it follows that you would want every individual to enter that system. Educators at Spruce certainly subscribe to ideologies of equality and meritocracy, and they see no reason every student at Spruce would not be able to equally enter the meritocratic world of school. But the ESL model relies on a cultural-deficiency framework that assumes students whose first language is not English are lacking and need remediation (Valdes 2001; Valenzuela 1999; Yosso 2005). Formal equality and deficit models are therefore two sides of the same coin. Since ELL students at Spruce are not succeeding like their White, English-speaking Spruce peers, it must be because they are deficient. It cannot be the result of anything systemic or structural within the school because Spruce offers a high-quality experience regardless of who a student is.
Alongside their own efforts to integrate ELL students into the Spruce fold, most of the ESL teachers had some concerns about how their students were treated outside the ESL classrooms. An issue that arose late during spring semester highlights their concerns. Although the school was once the district’s magnet secondary school for ELL services, the population of ELL students was only 15 percent of the total student population the year I conducted research. These changes in student demographics were accompanied by changes in personnel and course offerings. In 2006, Spruce offered sheltered ESL courses in language arts, math, science, and social studies at each grade level, but this list was significantly cut for the next academic year. Although I heard various explanations, which ranged from lack of funding to low enrollment numbers to an unwillingness to modify the master schedule to accommodate these classes, the end result was that the following year Spruce would only offer grade-level ESL language arts courses, and the ELL students would be “mainstreamed” for all other subject areas. When the ESL teachers found out about this change, they were upset and scheduled a meeting with the school administration and the district’s English Language Services Director. They learned that Spruce was only required to offer two courses in sheltered language arts in order to be in compliance with federal and state laws.
Although this was the ultimate plan for the following year, there was still some unrest among the small group of ESL teachers, who felt that their school was overly interested in offering more honors-level courses for “the neighborhood kids” at the expense of serving ELL students who were, for the most part, “bussed in.” In speaking about this incident and other similar examples, one teacher conveyed the following:
There’s a feeling sometimes that the administration isn’t as supportive of the ELLs and [is] . . . more interested in focusing on the, you know, neighborhood kids. And so I think a lot of people, including me, were uncomfortable with that. I felt like there really were some times when neighborhood kids got priority . . . I would like to feel more supported and a little more interest like from the principal and from the counselors. I’d like to have them in the classroom more often. I’d like to have them know these kids better—all my kids but particularly my ELLs. I’d like to have them know more of their concerns and, you know, maybe I need to be stepping up and expressing that more. But I just think we’ve gone a little bit back to focusing so much on neighborhood kids and mainstream kids and, you know, the top kids—the kids [who] . . . don’t cause problems—and we kind of lose sight of some of the other kids.
This ESL teacher was speaking against the strong pattern at Spruce to cloak assimilative schooling in a veil of formal equality. Powerblind, colorblind formal equality is operating in the desire to offer the same general classes to all students at Spruce and in the belief that focusing on the process of schooling (i.e., which classes are offered) is the best approach. What is really happening here is that White, English-dominant, middle-class students are the universal norm that Spruce organizes around. This approach fails to address what students really need from school, and it fails to acknowledge what school is actually doing to students. There exists no focus on the outcomes of whether all students are succeeding. Privileging assimilation to the dominant, mainstream norm at Spruce is understood by administrators and most teachers as an appropriate and effective way to school youth because (at least, in part) it builds on an ideological foundation of equality.
Although the “focus on neighborhood kids” is certainly consistent with the way Spruce positions itself as an “excellent east-side school,” its appeal to equality is actually a cover for unequal schooling. Cutting course offerings for ELL students while simultaneously adding course offerings that are inaccessible to ELL students and thus really only for White, English-speaking students is neither equal nor fair. If Spruce was working to ensure the honors courses were available to ELL students and these students were proportionately represented in them, then we might applaud the school’s efforts. But this was not the case. It is striking that the addition of courses for high-achieving White students was not viewed as offering “added benefits” to this group of students. Instead, these courses were largely understood as the “right” thing to do and the obvious approach for a school like Spruce. Offering additional courses to ensure the success of ELL students, however, was viewed as “pouring resources into a small group of kids at the expense of our other kids.” This contradiction was lost on most Spruce leaders and teachers. The sorting mechanism embedded in these decisions is not uncommon in schools. Whiteness is reinforced through these sorting mechanisms, but the harm is veiled behind ideologies of equality and meritocracy.
There are countless examples of similarly racist, marginalizing, and inequitable schooling for ELL students across the nation, but what is less talked about, and more insidious, are the ways the ESL teachers understand their own responsibility in these instances. The ESL teachers at Spruce subscribed to a “hands off” approach with their colleagues and administration. In reference to the majority of teachers, one ESL teacher said, “I just think that there is this wall—that they just want to teach the students [whom] . . . they want to teach.” Another teacher recalled an incident when an electives teacher approached her about one month into the school year and told her, “I gave this test to so and so, and I don’t think he understood it at all.” The ESL teacher went on to explain that “the student [this teacher] was referring to had been in the country just since summer; he read English a little bit but I hadn’t been able to have a conversation with him at all. He just had no, or very limited, oral language skills. And it kind of made me smile that here we were like four weeks into the term, and this teacher was just realizing that this kid doesn’t speak any English.” Not realizing that your student does not speak English is clearly unacceptable and an extreme example, but I include it here to highlight the pervasive nature of the powerblind, colorblind equality that is employed at Spruce. While teachers need to be held accountable for this sort of obvious lack of engagement with ELL students, teachers also need to be cognizant of the ways in which their allegiance to equality and meritocracy results in less obvious harm to students.
Consider one ESL teacher’s narrative about the recent changes to Spruce’s demographics and the role of teachers in advocating for students: “When we had a bigger population of students from different backgrounds, there were more teachers and there was more pressure from the district. And, I think . . . that maybe there were some teachers and some people [who] . . . were more . . . um, vocal and maybe a little more adamant in their, you know, expression of the need for multicultural education. I don’t think I’m that way. I think sometimes I’m pretty willing to just do my own thing. I’m not political at all.” In saying that she was not “political,” this teacher meant that she was not one to “rock the boat” or bring up concerns to her colleagues or the administration—even when she believed that her students’ needs were not being met in the best possible way. In other words, she was a nice teacher. Another teacher talked about how she used to be involved in planning the annual “multicultural assembly,” but when she and a few other teachers could no longer lead that effort, Spruce simply stopped having the assembly because nobody else took on the responsibility. And still another teacher described how there had been a significant decline in dialogue about issues of diversity among teachers—especially at faculty meetings. This teacher noted how they rarely talked about multicultural education or diversity “unless someone brings it up, but usually nobody ever does.” Indeed, there appears to be an unspoken assumption that diversity and excellence do not mix. This makes sense when we consider how entrenched powerblind, colorblind equality is at Spruce.
Although some of the ESL teachers were well aware of the school’s weaknesses related to meeting the needs of ELL students, they did not see themselves as either part of the problem or part of the solution. This is not unlike White teachers in “liberal Lakeview” (Kailin 1999) who ascribed racial problems to others (whether children, parents, people of color, and/or their colleagues) and also believed it was the purview of educators of color to address the problems that existed. What is happening here is that inequality and discrimination are understood as individually perpetrated within a system that is fair and equal. At the same time, the White ESL teachers are abiding by cultural and professional expectations of niceness. Also at the same time, there is a school-wide belief in the excellence, goodness, and neutrality of the education offered at Spruce. Taken together, the conditions are ripe for whiteness to be maintained and strengthened. For educators at Spruce, their ideas around race—which are also the dominant ideas in most predominantly White settings (Frankenberg 1993; Lewis 2003; Morrison 1992; Perry 2002)—led them to focus their energy and resources on providing a high-quality and creative education that primarily appealed to the White, middle-class families in their immediate local community. Colorblind ideals and believing in the irrelevance of race justified what was perceived to be a neutral and “good” education for “all students.” These ideologies and practices, however, were neither meeting the needs of ELL students nor cultivating equity or educating against whiteness at Spruce.
Given the student population, school leadership, and pressure from the district, Birch teachers and administrators were far more likely than Spruce educators to exhibit interest in and commitment to issues of educational equity and cultural diversity. Birch educators were involved in a number of efforts to improve their students’ academic performance and to embrace and celebrate the students’ ethnic diversity. Although Birch educators were more likely than Spruce educators to see themselves as activists concerned with educational equity, they were constrained by No Child Left Behind (NCLB) regulations and a context in which tests define success. As a result, teachers were only able to see their activist role in terms of standardized achievement. Their efforts were also constrained by their reliance on restrictive formal equality and meritocracy as guiding principles. These workhorses of whiteness guide policy and practice at both Spruce and Birch, but the work is very different and produces very different results within the two schools—an outcome wholly consistent with whiteness.
Although restrictive formal equality was the operating framework for Birch educators, there existed elements that approximate expansive substantive equality (or equity) as well. At Birch, there was a concerted effort to look at the outcomes of schooling for Birch students. Indeed, the principal and some Birch teachers were well aware of the problematic educational outcomes for their students. The response, however, was (primarily) to change the inputs and then assume that the outputs would also subsequently change. This sort of response falls short of addressing the systemic nature of inequity and the ideological and institutional workings of whiteness. Birch educators were also still reliant on a framework that attempted to prevent future wrongdoing, rather than on one that attempted to explicitly address present manifestations of past injustice. They did not assume equality of opportunity like their colleagues at Spruce, but they did restrict their understanding of competition and success to notions consistent with whiteness. This occurs, in part, because of the way NCLB regulations and the context of standardized schooling forces schools like Birch into a stacked competition. But it also occurs because equality and meritocracy do the work of whiteness—so any engagement with them means whiteness is also engaged and reified.
Birch educators were involved in a number of efforts to create a strong academic culture within the school. This was evident in a school-wide poster contest during the advisory period, which had the theme “It’s cool to be great in school.” Each advisory class was directed to make a single poster with this theme, and the winning class earned a pizza party. Similarly, one of the art classes created a number of posters displaying various students reading and quotes from the students about why reading was important.
The school employed a full time “Title I Director” whose primary responsibility was the reading program, and she worked hard to ensure consistent fidelity to the reading curriculum, pedagogical strategies, and assessment schedules. She modeled lessons, shared effective teaching techniques, and kept teachers informed about students’ reading progress or lack thereof throughout the year. Every student spent first period in a reading class with peers who were homogenously grouped according to their reading level. Students were tested every eight weeks and assigned to new reading classes based on their new reading level. The gains in student reading levels were impressive: The school averaged almost a two-year reading-level increase in just one year’s time. This is significant because at the time of my research, the average reading score for students entering Birch was three grade levels below their actual grade. The challenge facing Birch was also obvious in the fact that less than one-third of Birch students were reading at least one grade level below their actual grade.
Each reading class chose books based on their reading level and worked through a standardized curriculum that included individual, partner, and group reading; vocabulary words; discussions to check for and improve reading comprehension; journaling about the text; and weekly assessment exercises. All teachers were trained in this teaching model, and I observed two midyear faculty meetings in which the Title I Director talked about the reading program, encouraged teachers to continue working hard, and stressed that they needed to “lovingly bust” those students who were clearly not doing their nightly reading homework. Reading gains were often displayed on school bulletin boards and talked about over the morning announcements, and administrators regularly visited reading classes to support individual teachers, observe lessons, and talk to students about their progress and the room for improvement. In addition, mailings in multiple languages were sent to each student’s home every eight weeks that informed families about their student’s current and past reading scores and the progress the student was making, as well as offering suggestions for supporting the child’s continued reading improvement. Every student was expected to read a minimum of twenty minutes at home each night, and most students were required to ask an adult to sign a form indicating that they completed their daily reading. The school went to great lengths to ensure that parents were informed about the importance of reading, the expectation that students read at home, and the reading progress their children were making. In addition to the regular mailings, one administrator organized a group of multilingual people to circulate during parent-teacher conferences and talk to every parent about the reading program.
During class discussions, teachers encouraged students to “use your resources” and avoid random guessing when they were unsure of an answer. One teacher instructed his students: “Here’s what I should be seeing—I should see you opening the book to look for something when you don’t know [the answer].” In another class when the group was trying to decide which book to begin reading, a student asked if they could “vote” on a book that they had already read. The teacher asked the class, “Is it OK to read a book more than once?” The students said “Yes,” after which the teacher explained that they were “still increasing . . . [their] reading skills.” She went on to tell her class that reading and writing were important to improve literacy and that she expected them to work hard. She explained, “These are the things that are going to bring your grades up and your reading skills up.”
Birch teachers worked to cultivate a strong academic culture in their other classes and through other school responsibilities as well. One teacher worked on a committee during the summer that was charged with developing strategies for increasing the number of Birch students in advanced classes. He related this work to his efforts in his classroom, and he stressed that his students would “leave knowing how to write a thesis statement.” He also worked hard to “cultivate an attitude” in his students that “I can compete with anybody,” and he was joined by others who talked explicitly about preparing Birch students for higher education. One teacher emphasized the skills needed to format papers on the computer; she talked about how papers should be left-justified with the title centered, and she explicitly illustrated how to do these tasks on the computer. She further explained that instead of writing “by” and their name at the bottom of their papers, they should make “a header” in the top left corner that listed their name, date, period, and assignment and that “it’s a good habit to get into.” And finally, another teacher required students to develop Power Point presentations on a topic of their choice. He emphasized that the students were required to “keep it interesting” and create “presentations that we actually want to see!” He explained that the idea was to introduce students to the technology and to help students practice public speaking on a small scale.
While these academic skills may seem obvious, most Birch teachers recognized that in order for their students to be successful in their later years of schooling, they would need to know particular information that is generally not taught in school. Because these expectations are often assumed, many Birch teachers made a point of actually teaching these skills and explaining when and why students would need to know the information.
This practice is not unlike Lisa Delpit’s suggestion that teachers must expose low-income students and students of color to the “culture of power” in order to truly provide a high-quality education (Delpit 1988, 1995). She explains that this culture of power includes the rules and norms (i.e., the “codes”) that reflect the dominant group, and that if you are not already a member of this group, being told explicitly about the codes will make acquiring power easier. In other words, efforts by Birch teachers to explicitly convey information about academic expectations, norms, and rules facilitated the acquisition of greater school success and potentially increased access to power among their minoritized student body. This type of training is important and admirable work, but it also buys into the myth of meritocracy and fails to challenge the structural imbalance of resources and rules that frame schooling.
Many Birch teachers did not assume equal opportunity existed. Rather, they knew their students started out academically behind their east-side peers, and they knew their students faced additional obstacles as they moved through the school system. This is an important difference from the powerblind, colorblind formal equality operating at Spruce. In many instances, Birch teachers exhibited a more race-conscious and power-conscious allegiance to equality. They recognized unequal playing fields, and they believed that a pointed academic focus would result in a more level playing field. But they also still operated under the belief that once the field was made level, meritocracy would be fairly applied and equality would thus be achieved.
In some ways, then, Birch was pushing the boundaries of the niceness exhibited in Spruce’s reliance on powerblind, colorblind formal equality. Acknowledging inequality and talking to students about specific strategies for succeeding in the face of disparities is like treading on the outskirts of potentially choppy water. But any allegiance to formal equality maintains some degree of niceness. Here even Birch educators kept a safe distance from the waters of inequity by not specifically and explicitly addressing the structural impossibility of equality given patterned and systemic inequity.
Although it was more race conscious and power conscious, the restrictive formal equality framework driving Birch’s focus on academics and reading provides a poignant illustration of how Birch is educated in and educating for whiteness. What could be wrong with emphasizing academic success and literacy? Indeed, such an emphasis is what has for decades been missing from schools serving primarily low-income families and youth of color. It is a risky venture to go down the path of critiquing a school like Birch that is actually doing many of the things schools are supposed to be doing. But consider the line of thinking involved and the implications. The assumptions at work here are that if students maintain a diligent focus on their academic responsibilities, they will learn the material, learn how to read, earn good grades, and go on to be successful students and members of the community. If teachers remain faithful to the process outlined for them—including precisely outlined lesson plans, time-defined learning tasks, and frequent assessment, then equal opportunity has been embraced, and we can go home feeling good about our work. In this way of thinking, when students do not succeed, we do not need to worry that their lack of success is the fault of the system, the school, or the teacher, because we covered those bases by ensuring that the educational inputs and processes were “right.” Meritocracy helps us make sense of the outcome because, in fact, not everyone is supposed to get ahead, and one’s merit explains whether one will succeed or fail. This reasoning places primary focus on the individual, which fails to acknowledge group experiences of success and failure and systems’ roles in these successes and failures.
To be clear, the work Birch was engaging to improve the academic success of students is absolutely necessary. Teachers must maintain high expectations for their students and provide them with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in school. But although this work is necessary, it is not sufficient to undo the damage of whiteness and bring about equity. This work needs to be paired with informed and pointed critiques of the unfair systems embedded in schools and with work that changes those systems. Engaging solely in efforts that target the individual and maintain the myth of meritocracy, and thus protect the system, cannot ultimately challenge whiteness, which is by definition ideological and institutional.
Although Birch educators strategized around how their students could achieve greater success in the system as it is currently arranged, they were not equipping those students with the knowledge and skills necessary to change the system. Because their ideas about what constitutes success and achievement were defined by NCLB regulations, standardization, and accountability, Birch educators stopped at the point of improving their students’ academic skills. So although these teachers exhibited an impressive focus on academics, this focus was limited and still grounded in a restrictive formal understanding of equality. This is why context and history are so important. Without an understanding of the historical and contextual factors that impact east-side and west-side schools differently, we are left believing that all schools are the same and that all students will thrive under the same approaches. Standardized educational approaches fail to account for the vastly different histories and contexts of schools, students, and communities and, as such, naturalize patterns of success and failure. When these patterns are naturalized and made to seem normal, whiteness thrives and students get left behind.
No Child Left Behind regulations place increased burdens on schools like Birch that serve low-income students and students of color, and these schools subsequently feel pressure to “teach to the test” by focusing on standardized knowledge. The math and language arts classes at Birch were routinized, seemed to strictly follow the core curriculum, and tested students often. Carl Grant and Christine Sleeter found a similar pattern at a Midwestern junior high school: “The teachers rarely considered student interests; activities that promoted critical and analytic thinking; or the experiences and perspectives of different racial groups, social classes, and disability groups, and of both sexes” (Grant and Sleeter 1996, 127).
One Birch math teacher organized her classes according to previous years’ standardized math tests; so rather than following the textbook or an order that made logical sense based on the concepts to be learned, she taught topics that were covered on the tests and spent more time on topics that were covered extensively on the tests. All Birch math teachers were also required to test students every Friday using standardized tests that the district provided. These tests were shorter versions of the test used to comply with NCLB regulations, generally covered a handful of particular topics, and were meant to simulate the “real” test given at the end of the year. Teachers could track their students’ progress on these tests, and teachers whose classes did not demonstrate appropriate levels of achievement on the tests were given support in the form of a “math coach” from the district.
Another practice that occurred in the math, language arts, and science classes was to begin these classes with one to three “problems of the day” or “warm ups.” While a similar practice also occurred in a number of Spruce classes, the problems at Birch were of a different nature and were often taken directly from previous years’ standardized tests. So while Ms. Carol at Spruce developed problems using her students’ names and describing activities in which they might reasonably be involved, Ms. Ramirez from Birch took problems from old standardized tests that were often about fictional and unfamiliar topics. Such standardized and routinized patterns at Birch are clearly the result of pressures imposed by NCLB regulations. Given that Birch students have historically underperformed on standardized tests, and given the imperatives for the school to improve performance, it is understandable that Birch teachers would resort to standardized “teaching to the tests.” This is one of the consequences of the No Child Left Behind Act that disproportionately affects schools like Birch.
Even within Birch, some students had to bear the burden of standardized measures of accountability more than others. The school added a series of language arts classes in 2005 targeted specifically at what it called “the bubble kids.” Eighth-grade students who had scored just below the passing mark on their seventh-grade language arts tests were assigned to this class with the intent that they would be able to pass the test in eighth grade “with a little extra help” from the school. It is significant that this class was made available to a very particular group of students rather than all students who didn’t receive a proficient score on the language arts tests. School leaders believed their resources should be focused on a small group of students who were within a close enough range that passing seemed like a realistic goal. Indeed, the students in this class showed marked improvement on their reading scores and language arts scores when tested throughout the year—far more improvement than similar students who were not in this “extra” language arts class. So students who were not identified as “bubble kids” were truly “left behind” because of the pressures felt by NCLB regulations. As Mr. Mecha noted, the No Child Left Behind Act “has thrown the baby out with the bathwater.”
Some teachers, like Mr. Mecha, were critical of the “bubble kids” approach, but others were supportive of it. In both instances, however, we see the ways equality and meritocracy act as mechanisms to sustain inequity. Teachers who critiqued this approach did so on the grounds that students who were not in the bubble were being denied equal opportunities to succeed. These teachers thought it was “unfair to single out some of our kids for special treatment” and suggested that “every student at Birch should get this kind of special treatment.” This is a clear manifestation of equality—all students should have access to the same opportunities—paired with an appeal to fairness. The problem here is that when sameness and fairness are collapsed into the same thing, it is impossible to enact differential approaches (because that would be unfair) even if that is what is needed to ultimately achieve equality. Teachers who supported the “bubble kids” approach acknowledged that there were limited resources, and they believed those resources were best spent in ways that would “bring up the scores for the whole school.” But even this motivation to make the school more equal to those across town is problematic because in the race to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) and improve the reputation of the whole school so that Birch appears more like Spruce, students who need more resources actually get less.
My point here is to demonstrate the multiple ways in which Birch’s curriculum, pedagogy, and services were shaped by accountability measures and a desire to meet AYP and show improvement on standardized tests. Indeed, Birch met these goals in large number and was slowly changing its reputation within the district. Although Birch failed to meet AYP just three years prior, in 2006, it not only met AYP goals but also posted higher test scores than other schools in particular subjects. It would be fair to say, then, that many of the school’s efforts paid off. The strict emphasis on testing and resources going toward students who seemed “within reach” did, in fact, result in higher overall test scores from previous years. But what might be lost in this “drill and kill” educational approach? What are students not getting when Birch teachers report spending 40 percent of their time on mandated practice tests? My findings are consistent with other research that shows that teachers are feeling tremendous pressure not only to plan curriculum explicitly around state content standards but also to draw curricular emphases directly from anticipated test items. This is even more likely to occur among new teachers (Kauffman, Johnson, Kardos, Liu, and Peske 2002) and teachers in schools like Birch that serve primarily low-income students and students of color (Lipman 2004). The result, as Sleeter points out, is that teachers tend to “turn the standards into the curriculum itself. Doing this, however, is likely to result in boring, superficial teaching that favors memory work over understanding” (Sleeter 2005, 44). Thus, at Birch, although test scores were rising, it is useful to consider what this means in the context of whiteness.
Because schools rest on a foundation of meritocracy and equality, schools like Birch are forced to engage in very different behaviors than schools like Spruce. There is a differentiated effect of NCLB regulations operating in the schools. Spruce can essentially ignore its small ELL population and pour time, energy, and resources into the White and middle-class students who make up the majority of the student body. Birch is held captive by tests that are biased and not normed on its student population. Equality, which is the espoused goal of the No Child Left Behind Act, and closing the achievement gap, is clearly not equal. Furthermore, the standardized accountability system under NCLB defines the quest for equality as being solely about test scores. Even if tests scores on state exams were equal across schools and between minoritized students and their White peers, what about patterned inequities across other measures both in and out of school? As long as diversity-related policies and practices in schools are narrowly defined and built on a foundation of restrictive, formal equality, success and merit will be understood as individual traits within a fair and just system.
A handful of educators at Birch, most notably the principal, did engage policies and practices that have the potential of disrupting the individualized focus on formal equality and meritocracy. Mr. More recognized that the entire educational system often works against Birch students and thus, in order to be truly effective, Birch needed to collaborate with its feeder elementary schools and the high school most Birch students attend. Mr. More was clear with the local elementary schools that he expected to see improvement in the reading levels of students entering Birch, and he was clear with the high school that he expected to see more Birch students in honors and advanced placement (AP) classes and on their graduation rosters. The principal spoke at length about his efforts to ensure that Birch students were successful in high school:
With [the high school], we’ve worked this year in a couple different ways to see, ah, to make bridges for—specifically to make bridges for minority students, but all of our students. Build bridges for our minority students to be successful and take full advantage of the things [the high school] has to offer them. . . . For example . . . in September, when we realized we had thirty college-level readers in the school and all but two were minority students, I met with their parents, the [the high school] principal, and the [high school] counselor and shared with the parents what they need to do to take advantage of AP courses while their child is at [the high school]. Because these parents, not always, but many of the parents didn’t know about AP classes. For different reasons they are unfamiliar with how the system works and so . . . we know if the parent wants something to happen, that’s a good influence. It’s a great influence. And of course, we’re not over there [in the high school], but the parent will still be with the child, and hopefully the parent is realizing, “Oh, great, this is a great way to get essentially free college.” One of the parents, after that evening said, “I wish I would have known this for my other kids.” . . . So, we’re educating the parents on how to take advantage of the system if they don’t already know. And that’s an easy thing to watch the numbers on, isn’t it? . . . We can watch to see. Each year we can run numbers to see how many former [Birch] students were in AP classes. And we’ve met with [the high school] faculty three times and shared with them the reading growth with our low kids, and we showed them where they start and where they end. And they, ah, they can’t help but like us after that because they are realizing, you know, we’re not being lazy over here. We are actually moving the kids, but we’re just getting a third of our kids reading on a third-grade level or lower. OK, so . . . we’ve shared with the [high school] faculty that we’re looking for those AP numbers to go up. So we are giving them gentle but firm pressure. We’d like to see those numbers go up, and we are asking them for feedback on what our kids don’t know that they need to know so that we can be training them to be able to take advantage of the cool things and life-changing things that they could be a part of at [the high school]. So it’s not adversarial but it’s tough. I mean, we’re sending a clear message.
Mr. More identifies a step-by-step process in which he engaged to begin to break down the systemic inequity impacting his students. He first recognized that the system is broken: He wondered about the “college-level readers” from Birch and the missing “bridges” to ensure Birch students succeed at every point along the educational pipeline. He continued working to change the broken system, and he did so through multiple points of entry and strategies. He talked to educators, educational leaders, counselors, and parents, and he was armed with clear and convincing data. He also named specific structural pieces that were broken when he pointed to the number of students in AP courses and the lack of information provided to parents. Mr. More recognized that this work is not a one-shot effort; instead, it requires constant reminders, soliciting feedback, and sharing potentially uncomfortable information with various institutional actors. And finally, he pressed for change in the outcomes—noting that his work was “not adversarial, but it’s tough.”
These efforts are especially important given the context of Birch and the Zion School District. All Birch students attend the same high school unless they move out of the school’s boundaries or complete a bureaucratic process requesting to attend another district school. Although this high school has a good reputation among White, middle-class families from east-side communities, the graduation rate at this high school for students from Birch is an abysmal 25 percent. High school officials have noted that a very high percentage of their school’s overall tardies come from students living in “the [Birch] zip code,” and it is well known that teachers at the high school regularly comment on the “problems” they face with “those kids from [Birch].” So Mr. More was engaged in what he called a “focused PR [public relations] campaign” to change the perception of his school, his students, and the communities Birch serves; his efforts were largely aimed at his Zion School District colleagues.
Mr. More’s efforts illustrate a particular kind of nice approach to engaging systemic change. He noticed patterned unfairness and strategized about how to effect change within his district, but his efforts were carefully shaped around clear data and straightforward messages connected to the educational mission of schools. Mr. More did not call out racism as such, and he did not point to specific people or groups of people who need to be held accountable.
The work Mr. More explained highlights the importance of the entire system of schooling and that a systemic approach is needed to truly bring about change. Advocating for students throughout their educational careers within the district can still be linked to notions of equality and meritocracy, but it is work that begins to create an equitable system rather than just relying on an assumption of a mythological equal system. Unfortunately, this work was limited by ever-present commitments to restrictive formal equality and pressures of standardized accountability. These limitations are highlighted by a Birch teacher: “All we’re doing [at Birch] is teaching the kids who will help our scores, and it isn’t even questioned by anyone because it’s so much the culture of the school. It’s talked about all the time in meetings and nobody even questions it. . . . But you don’t have time to have those conversations . . . Our funding is related to [improving test scores], and if we lose, we lose money. But if other schools lose, they just lose a little reputation.” So even with a principal who articulates and engages strategies for reversing patterned and systemic inequity, the “culture of the school” defaults to the lure of meritocratic competition.
As the cases of Birch and Spruce illustrate, diversity-related policy and practice in schools is typically framed by notions of meritocracy and equality. The ways educators engage equality can take many forms, but as long as it centers individualized sameness at the expense of structural power mechanisms, equality will never allow equity. Put another way, it is impossible to achieve equity through equal means (Brayboy, Castagno, and Maughan 2007). Indeed, “remaining faithful to the racial-equality creed enables us to drown out the contrary manifestations of racial domination that flourish despite our best efforts” (Bell 2004, 188). We cannot continue to privilege restrictive formal equality, in any of its forms, if we hope to achieve justice and fairness for every student, family, and community. When using the standard of equity, we should ask ourselves what characteristics or circumstances are significant, what results or outcomes are fair and just, and what specific strategies are most likely to lead to the desired results or outcomes. Some of these criteria were beginning to drive the work at Birch, but the allegiance to restrictive formal equality continued to operate just below the surface.
In addition to the distinct but shared allegiance to equality and meritocracy, Spruce and Birch Secondary Schools also shared a focus on targeted public relations campaigns and building particular reputations. In both cases, educators strove for what they believed to be an excellent, high-quality education that would, in turn, foster success among their students. The meaning of excellence and success was different in each school due to their varying contexts and the associated pressures of standardized accountability under NCLB. But although the drive for excellence and success looked different in each school, it operated in service to the same end. Although excellence and success are cast as neutral pursuits that benefit all students equally, they actually function to normatively sort students. This normative and sorting mechanism, hidden under the guise of equality, is a powerful tool of whiteness in schools.
In 2006, the stakes involved in these efforts around excellence and success were very different than they are now with the massive increase in choice initiatives in the Salt Lake area and across the country. Public schools can no longer rely on a given enrollment based on their catchment areas. Schools are now in competition with other schooling options; they are also competing against one another for federal grants and philanthropic funds. These added elements of competition, liberalism, and neoliberalism are additional manifestations of whiteness. Given the ideological and institutional nature of whiteness, there exists a zero-sum game in which there will be losers and there will be winners. Competition assumes a level playing field and fairly executed rules, and the structure of the game reinforces the myth of meritocracy and allegiance to equality. These themes are explored in the following chapter, but they have been lurking just below the surface for some time.