America’s public school teaching workforce is mostly-White and nearly all female. Many of them live in suburbia — even when they teach in urban districts. Even when they do live in urban districts, many of them either use school choice clauses in collective bargaining agreements to get first dibs on schools that don’t have Black or Latino children in them, or just send their kids to private schools to avoid the failure mills they themselves work in.
While many teachers are progressive politically, this is not true of everyone in the profession. As seen three years ago in New York City, when teachers angry at the American Federation of Teachers’ Big Apple unit for supporting efforts against police brutality wore t-shirts in support of police, not all are all that concerned with criminal justice reforms that would help improve the lives of the poor and minority children they teach. And unlike the two unions that represent them (often not of their own choosing), those teachers aren’t necessarily loyal to the Democratic National Committee. Even American Federation of Teachers President Rhonda (Randi) Weingarten conceded last year that one in five of its rank-and-file voted for Donald Trump.
Considering these realities, it is little wonder why Steve Bannon, the White Supremacist who helped Trump win the presidency last year and served as his aide before flaming out this past August, wanted (and managed to score) a meeting with Weingarten last March. Nor is it shocking that Weingarten came away rather impressed by his political acumen. Because she, along with Lily Eskelsen Garcia of the National Education Association, knows all too well that far too many teachers in American public education are racially myopic. And that her union protects them.
Certainly reformers can point to the instances of outright bigotry by teachers and school leaders within the past year. This includes Cammie Rone, who was suspended in September by the Panola district in Mississippi after writing a Facebook rant that demanded that Black people should “move back to Africa” if they are dissatisfied with the legacies of bigotry that still perplex America today. It also includes an as-yet identified teacher at Cliffside Park High School in New Jersey who was caught on Snapchat last month berating her (English-speaking) Latino students, proclaiming that soldiers “are not fighting for your right to speak Spanish.” The incident led to students at the school, which is in a district in which one-third of students are Latino, walking out in protest.
Certainly most teachers aren’t outright bigots. There are myriad teachers who do well by all children every day and deserve our praise as well as respect. But far too many poor and minority children are subjected by far too many instructional professionals to educational abuse and neglect. And it extends beyond those few public instances.
Over the past few months, a litany of studies have once again proven that White teachers are less likely to have high expectations for Black children (and therefore, less likely to provide them high-quality instruction) than their White peers. Just 24 percent of White teachers expected their Black students to finish high school and higher education, according to a 2017 study led by Seth Gershenson of American University and Nicholas Papageorge of Johns Hopkins University. Those low expectations contribute to low educational attainment by poor and minority children.
This racial myopia (and outright bigotry) toward poor and minority children also manifests in the overuse of out-of-school suspensions and other forms of harsh traditional school discipline. As Adam Wright of University of California, Santa Barbara determined in a 2015 study, beliefs among White teachers that Black children are unruly and poorly-behaved explain why they are more-likely to be referred for discipline and suspended than their White peers. Black children taught by Black teachers were 28 percent-to-38 percent less-likely to be suspended than if taught by White teachers.
Not only does Wright’s study bear out three decades of research on overuse of discipline (including those than control for socioeconomic status), it even proves Vanderbilt Professor Daniel J. Reschly’s assertion about the role of teacher beliefs (and misinterpretation of data) in the overidentification of Black and other minority children as special ed cases. Which is why your editor isn’t surprised by today’s news out of California that even with aggressive reforms on the school discipline front there, out-of-school suspensions were meted out to 9.8 percent of Black children, a rate three times higher than that for their White schoolmates.
Certainly the educational abuse of Black children are reflective of failures in school leadership within states and traditional districts. This is a point Dropout Nation continues to make in its Rationing Opportunity and Beyond Ferguson collections. But teachers do the work in classrooms, and as data continues to show, have the greatest impacts on student achievement, especially in areas such as math. More-importantly, because the quality of teaching varies more within schools (from classroom to classroom) than among them, the racial myopia of teachers (and their low expectations for the poor and minority children in their care) are matters that have to be addressed in order to help all children succeed.
This includes overhauling how we recruit teachers, ensuring that they care for every child regardless of background as well as have the subjective-matter competency needed to educate them properly. It also includes giving districts and other school operators the ability to remove those in the classroom who don’t belong there.
Those transformations, however, are opposed by AFT and NEA. For all their talk about opposing the bigotry of the likes of Bannon and Trump — as well as their participation efforts such as the new Education Civil Rights Alliance funded in part by the Ford Foundation — the Big Two unions end up aiding and abetting the kinds of soft and hard bigotries associated with the likes of them.
The Big Two continue to support the nation’s university schools of education, which have demonstrably proven ineffective in recruiting teachers both empathetic to all children and competent in their instruction. AFT, in particular, gave $71,410 to Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation, the organization that defends the poor practices of ed schools, during its 2017 fiscal year.
The Big Two defend near-lifetime employment in the form of tenure and shoddy teacher dismissal policies that make it difficult for districts to root out laggards (as well as those engaged in criminal and sexual abuse). Their opposition to the efforts of Teach For America (which is now the training center of choice for high-quality Black, Latino, and Native teachers) to diversify teaching, as well as their fights against efforts of charters to develop alternative routes for bringing in teachers (which would be a boon to mid-career professional of African-American descent) also exemplifies their lack of concern for the futures of poor and minority children.
Meanwhile AFT and NEA have been unwilling to ride herd on locals and state affiliates who oppose school discipline reforms that can help poor and minority children. AFT’s failure three years ago to force its Minneapolis local to support an effort by the district to reduce overuse of suspensions is merely one of many instances when the national union’s proclamations for social justice are proven empty in practice.
This soft bigotry perpetuated by AFT and NEA extends beyond teachers. From opposing the expansion of high-quality charter schools and other school choice options, to its opposition to Parent Trigger laws and efforts of Parent Power activists in places such as Connecticut and California, to efforts to eviscerate accountability measures that hold districts and school operators to heel for serving Black and Brown children well, even to their historic disdain for Black families and condoning of Jim Crow discrimination against Black teachers, both unions have proven no better than outright White Supremacists when it comes to addressing the legacies of bigotry in which American public education is the nexus.
By refusing to embrace systemic reforms, AFT and NEA help perpetuate damage to the futures of Black and Brown children, often behaving no differently in consequence than the regime that occupies the executive branch of the federal government. Even worse, by refusing to help root out those teachers harming children, the two unions actually damage the teaching profession itself as well as do disservice to those good and great teachers who care for every child in their classrooms.
Certainly Weingarten is no bigot. This is crystal clear. But given these realities, one has to wonder how different is she in reality from Steve Bannon? Because she and her allies are doing no better than him when it comes to building brighter futures for Black and Brown children.