Schooling Against Racism

This post is adapted from a sermon preached at the Unitarian Universalist Church on April 28th, 2013 by me (the Rev. Dr. Matthew Johnson-Doyle).  The thoughts are my own, and not necessarily Next Rockford’s or the UU Church’s.  

I have spent a fair bit of time working on understanding on what sometimes seems like an intractable problem: racism.  In particular, I have focused on racism in education: how does education work against racism, and how does education feed racism.  How would we design an education system, here, in Rockford, Illinois, that would combat racism?

The problem is large, and it is nationwide, and not just in our town. The problem is long-standing. And, I’ll tell you, working on this issue is not always rewarding. I have been viciously attacked for doing this work.

For even talking about race, I’ve been called a troublemaker and an outside agitator.  For trying to see how we could get more teachers of color, I have been called an anti-white, “reverse racist.”  For asking hard questions about the strength of communities, neighborhoods, and families, I’ve been accused of being an anti-black racist.  (I’ve not yet been accused of being anti-Latino or anti-Asian, but I’m sure it’s just a matter of time.)  For working closely with the current administration, I’ve been called a capitalist collaborator and a sell-out.  For opposing efforts to demonize teachers and for not supporting every charter school, regardless of its quality, I’ve been called a socialist defender of union hacks.

Sometimes I wonder why I even bother.

Because my faith demands it of me.  It calls us to transform the world from inhumanity to love.  It says, do the hard work. If not you, who?

Our faith says that all people – no exceptions – all people have dignity and worth. We have stood against racism for centuries: many of our fore-bearers were abolitionists, a white Unitarian minister co-founded the NAACP, we stood shoulder to shoulder with Dr. King and the civil rights movement, and we continue to work and teach against racism wherever we go.

And we have worked for public education. Indeed, Horace Mann, the founder of public schools in this country, did that work because of his Unitarian faith. He saw a system of patchwork schools, often poorly run, or sectarian schools, and he believed that we needed common, public, free schools, where every student could get an education to help them achieve their dreams, and where people of every walk of life would mix and interact, and so doing help bind the new nation together.

So let’s talk about the problem. What’s up?

Start with the achievement gap: lower outcomes for African-American students and Hispanic students. The district uses something called the Discovery Education Assessment for its own internal assessment of students.  There are four proficiency levels to this test. On the reading test that K-8 students took in December, the white students had an almost perfectly even distribution – 1/4 at each level. However, 43% of Black Students and 47% of Hispanic students scored at the lowest level, while only 7% and 8%, respectively, scored on the highest level.

This isn’t just about poverty, by the way, though poverty is a big part of this.  On that same test, students who qualify for a free lunch scored 42% in the lowest level and 10% in the highest.  So, Hispanic students, as a whole, and Black students, as a whole, did worse on the reading test that free-lunch students, as a whole.

Tardiness and absenteeism is worse for black students. Suspensions and expulsions are much worse,  especially for African-American 9th and 10th grade boys.  So far this year in the Rockford Public Schools,  there have been 99 expulsions, 76 of them African-American, and 67 of the total number of expulsions were 9th or 10th graders.

Graduation rates are worse for African American and Hispanic students, and college attendance and completion are worse.  These facts have consequences: for the children of these children who are born into generational poverty. This results in deep unemployment, government dependency and crime.  I could go on, but the point is made.

We have a problem.  Why?  “Why” is the most complicated question and the most contentious.

Some say it is because of non-school environmental factors, like the quality of parenting (absent fathers, young moms, too much TV, too little discipline, etc).  Or perhaps it is the quality of the neighborhood — too few jobs and too much crime.

Another problem is lead exposure.  Lead slows the growth of the brain, leads to a lack of impulse control and the ability of complete tasks. And though lead is no longer in our gasoline, it is still in the soil and the buildings, especially in dense urban areas – where high-poverty Black and Hispanic kids are growing up.

Malnutrition is a problem. The brain needs good food, especially vegetables, to grow strong in the first few years. How many full-service brand-name grocery stores are on the southwest side of Rockford? None.  Not a single one in the whole neighborhood.  Food deserts, plus lack of transportation to other stores,  means parents get what they can carry at the gas station. Would you buy fresh fruit from the gas station?  Is that where you would get vegetables for your kids?

These non-school factors can explain why high-poverty students of color have worse outcomes than other students – a combination of lack of parental resources, lead poisoning, malnutrition, lack of pathways to success, and so on.  Residential segregation – the topic for another sermon – traps these kids in places where success is very hard to achieve.

But others say, no, no, no, it isn’t non-school factors. It is that our schools systematically discriminate against students of color, especially high-poverty students of color.   Every student would thrive if they just had better schools, so some say. We warehouse these students, the argument goes – we put them in schools with inexperienced teachers, less opportunities, old textbooks, and so on.  Per-pupil spending in wealthy suburbs is $20,000 or more. In Rockford, and a lot of other high poverty districts, it’s half that.

But even within a school district, there are inequalities between schools that perpetuate racial discrimination. And the data bears this out. So let me tell you the tale of two schools.

On the east side of town, Cherry Valley Elementary School. 63% white, and 80% of the students meet or exceed test standards. Cherry Valley’s free and reduced lunch rate is 58%.  At Cherry Valley, the average teacher pay is almost $75,000 –  because they have a lot of experienced teachers.  At Cherry Valley, the unfilled vacancies percentage is 5% – that’s the percent of the time that a teacher needed a substitute, and they couldn’t get one, so a principal or another teacher had to cover the class.

Then, in the center of town, across the street from the Blackhawk public housing complex, Beyer Elementary. At Beyer, less than 10% of the students are white.  Only 46% meet or exceed standards. The poverty rate is 95%. The average teacher salary? $55,000 – $20,000 less than Cherry Valley – because they have inexperienced teachers, teachers without the seniority to bail out and get an easier job elsewhere in the district.  The unfilled vacancy rate – the percentage of the time that they couldn’t get a sub to come? 46%.

I could have compared Brookview to King, or Rolling Green to McIntosh.  Same story.  So the point – that we put high poverty students in schools with inexperienced teachers, and that we don’t serve those students as well as we should – this point is borne out by the data.

There are other school-based reasons for the achievement gap: lack of multicultural competence, which creates disengaged learners and sends kids who think they are acting normal to the principals office for acting out; examples and projects that don’t speak to the real lives kids lead, and so on.

Which is it?  Is it non-school factors?  Or is it school factors?  Why do we have this problem?  Well, it’s both, obviously.  Of course it’s both.

I think all sides need to admit this. It’s everything. Which means we can’t pass the buck, and say, oh, it’s the parents fault, or the teachers fault, or the governments fault. It’s everybody’s problem, everybody is to blame, and everyone must act to fix it. And it means there is no silver bullet. No one thing by itself will fix things. We have to do lots of things.  Here are three things you can do:

One : volunteer in the schools. Whether you have kids in them or not. Tutor, or help with special events. Join the PTO for your neighborhood school. Sign up for a career day.  Do something to help.

Second. I want to invite you, engage you, compel you to join with me in advocating and organizing for the public policy that will make the greatest difference for he most kids: Quality Preschool for all. There are lots of policy things that need to be done, including teacher training and diversity and placement, curriculum redesign, and more, but the most effective for these kids is preschool. Kids who need preschool don’t have lobbyists.  I see that Congress decided to cancel the sequester for people wealthy enough to fly on airplanes, but Headstart kids who got thrown out of the program? They are out of luck.

Nothing makes a bigger difference for high poverty kids than preschool. Nothing is more cost effective and long lasting as an intervention.

And guess what? The Rockford public schools are great at preschool. It’s one of the things they do really well. But we don’t have enough money to admit more kids or enough money to transport more kids. State funding is, well, it’s Illinois, what do you think? In his budget, the President proposed increasing taxes on cigarettes to pay for a national expansion of preschool, which is a great idea. And if you think that’s likely to pass, I got a bridge in Brooklyn I’d love to sell you. We need to change the conversation. Change the priorities. Each one of us needs to become a lobbyist for high- poverty three year-olds.  Make that your mission.  Write letters, call, talk it up. Make it part of the conversation. I’m very serious about this. Next time someone brings up a problem: crime, unemployment, the achievement gap, whatever, you say: “you know, the research says very clearly that more and better preschool would help solve that.  How can we make that happen, do you think?”

Become a fierce advocate for these kids, because if it isn’t us, then who will do it?  They can’t do it themselves.  They are three. Their parents don’t have the time or the social capital that some of us do. Use whatever power you have to advocate for expansions in these programs, until we serve every child who can’t otherwise afford it with high quality preschool.  Do that, and we will serve the kids well;  we will serve society, 20, 30 years down the road, very well. It’s the right thing to do.

Third. Stop bickering. Pettiness, name calling, and unfounded accusations of malfeasance — all this turns people away from the work. It is unhelpful.  Be part of the solution, or pick another issue, because these kids are not served by such behavior. Whether you are against the teacher’s union, or the superintendent, or the school board, or the business leaders, whoever you are against, stop. We don’t need “against.”  We need people who will be “for” — for these kids, these three year-olds and third graders who need us. So praise what’s right, be part of the solution, and don’t allow yourself, or others, to attack people personally.

That’s three things you can do. Volunteer, advocate, and be positive.  If you want more things you can do, let me know, I’ve got a long list.

For too long, we have looked at this problem and said, ah, nothing can be done. We have ceded the territory to the ideologues, the nasty, and the mediocre. But that must stop.  Something can be done.  A difference can be made, if we focus on these, the sons and daughters of all of us who are human, who are our neighbors. A difference can be made if we roll up our selves and keep our eyes ahead. A difference can be made;  and we can help make it.

This work isn’t easy. But it matters.  It matters so much. Our faith in the worth of every person, in a civic society, all people included, our commitments, they demand of us, call upon us, to work together, to stand together, to make our schools a place of liberation, not continued oppression, a place where human minds are opened, and possibilities enlarged, where cycles of despair are ended, and pathways of hope are laid before our children, one brick at a time.



  1. I’ll try to make this simple for you. Fixed number of teachers…with me so far? Increasing teachers of “color” means decreasing teachers not of “color”. That is racism. You can slice and dice this any way you want, but you are still advocating racism.

    Hiring teachers should be color blind. If more whites get hired, perhaps teachers “of color” should work harder rather than blame their failure on white people.

    Multiculturalism is a “cop-out”…just another lame attempt to explain FAILURE. “Success for All” simply dumbs down all children so that the failing children don’t feel bad about themselves. The United States has fallen to 17th in the word educationally. In Illinois, we spend over $11,000
    PER CHILD, and look at the failed results. This happened when we stopped applying common sense and instead started listening to idiot Social Engineers.

  2. Juice

    Some employers ask for “optional” racial information on a seperate form, when submitting your resume, but “it will not be used in the decision making”. Whatever. If a white male and a non-white male or female are “tied”, guess who loses. And it’s all in the name of “promoting diversity”. It is intended discrimination, but impossible to prove.