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Photo: protest of the appointment of Betsy DeVos, January 2017, by Ted Eytan/Flickr.

They Played Their Hand, and We Have to Say, “We’re Not Going Back”
What did the coronavirus crisis teach us about education in the US? That we have all the resources we need when we want them.

March 14, 2020. I was camping with my mom, my daughter, my sister, and my niece. We had intended to go with all the families of Gastonia Freedom School, but concerns about the new virus led us to cancel. I was using the limited cell service I had to check Twitter. Our governor was planning to make a statement ahead of public school’s spring break week. The announcement, as you can probably guess, was that schools would not come back after spring break. All schools statewide were closed, for three weeks at first. Three weeks that turned into the rest of the school year.

When schools shut down, the only way we could reach each other was through a screen. Now that children were stuck at home, parents, teachers, and governments had a great fear–the fear of failure. And for some reason that fear of failure was stronger than any fear that had ever driven conventional schools. So schools sent out hotspots to students, and they purchased new computers for those that didn’t have them. Bus drivers picked up and delivered lunches. Tech companies offered their services for free. Standardized testing was gone in months and why? Because you can’t expect kids to do well when they are in crisis.

For Bettina Love, it was disappointing. Bettina Love is a professor and school abolitionist. I watched her in a webinar later that month, and she said something that stuck with me. Love said that schools “played their hand.” Suddenly counties and states had access to technology, support workers, and alternate methods of evaluation. Millions of dollars were flowing to make sure kids didn’t fail. It was an amazing feat, but it only happened because they saw that the “good kids” were in crisis.

My center, Gastonia Freedom School, is part of the Agile Learning Network. We focus on serving children with disabilities. Most of our kids are autistic, and about half of them are Black. We don’t have the “good kids.” In fact, many of them were in crisis before COVID. Why didn’t parents, teachers, and school administrators transform the educational system for them? It comes down to money, they said. Lack of resources. I say it’s something else: white supremacy.

When it’s only Brown and Black kids failing, it’s ok. When you have a model minority matching and surpassing white children, it’s ok. When only low income white kids with “bad” parents who fail, it’s ok. When Olivia from the nice neighborhood and great parents is at risk, it’s not ok. Not in my backyard. The government has to fix this. Never mind that the government is usually bad because it’s forcing vaccines on us or telling us to teach accurate history. When it’s my child, they need to act. Otherwise I’ll opt out of the system and put my children into even more segregated, inaccessible schools.

I probably struck a nerve. These are some of the reasons you are reading this today, looking at alternative education. Conventional schools failed, but not for the reasons you expect. A system created under white supremacy is never going to meet the needs of all children, whether it’s conventional schools or alternative schools. That’s the bad news. The good news is that we are more aware of how white supremacy operates and how we can fight it even in our non-conventional settings.

If the only time you’ve heard of white supremacy is when talking about the Ku Klux Klan, I’ll explain. White supremacy is the idea that the history, experiences, and values of white people are more important than those of non-white people. And by white, I mean descendants of Western Europeans. White supremacy shows up in the way we think about beauty, govern ourselves, and educate our children. White supremacy means that when a Black child shows up at school, they will be told the way they talk, the way they dress, their hair, their culture, and their history are not “correct.” It doesn’t matter if the school has a Black principal or a Black teacher because they too are upholding white supremacy. They are invested because that’s how they make a living. My hope is that alternative schools already know how to fight against white supremacy, but my experience is that it shows up in alternative education as well.

So what do you do? You have to learn how to recognize the elements of white supremacy and act in ways that go against it. Even if you consider yourself progressive, rebelling against the ways your parents raised you, it doesn’t mean you are fighting white supremacy. You may just be replacing one form of white supremacy with another “crunchier” form. So here are things to look for. These apply whether you are creating your own school, co-op, or play group. It can apply when you start making friends over Zoom or in person. They apply right now in your home. These are not quick fixes. They are Crystal’s Moderately Difficult and Sometimes Abstract Ways to Fight White Supremacy.

First, challenge your ideas about fit. We use the word “fit” in a lot of contexts. At work, we want to hire someone who is a good fit. We want to join an organization that’s a good fit. We switch doctors if we think they’re not a good fit. We like to think of “fit” as a logical list of qualifications in our head, but in reality it is a mixture of the culture we were socialized in and the biases we grew up with. Very few people, even progressives, take the time to deprogram the ideas we have about people as it relates to bias. And we know that bias has real effects on people’s housing, jobs, and quality of life. The way you can help is to challenge your assumptions about what a person from a particular background is supposed to look and act like. If they fall outside your assumptions, welcome it. If they meet your assumptions, think about whether your actions pushed them into that box. Or just write them off as a stereotype.

Second, don’t unintentionally harm people. I know most people feel really proud when you integrate people who are different into your life, but you can still harm these people with microaggressions. Microaggressions are complicated, because they are usually done with good intentions, but they still cause harm. You can find plenty of examples about microaggressions, but I’ll tell you one that I hate to hear as a facilitator at Gastonia Freedom School. “They are so inspiring.” A disabled child is not here to inspire. They are not an opportunity to raise money or learn about friendship. They are human beings who have thoughts and desires, good and bad just like everyone else. So don’t say they’re inspiring. Give them money and ways to access the world just like you can.

Third, build in affordability. There is a deep wealth disparity between Black and white Americans based on access to housing and jobs. A middle class Black family can have the same income as a white family and still be denied a mortgage. So even if they are part of the 41% of Black families that own a home, they are probably paying a higher monthly rate and interest. That means what is affordable to you is not affordable to them. Not to mention the families who are not middle class and rely on public schools for child care and healthy meals. They’re not going to send homemade lunches to your center everyday. If you can create a way to lower or eliminate fees for marginalized people, do it. As my mom reminds me every year when I’m setting up our tuition rates, “We still gotta eat,” but you can create a lot of equity just by changing how much you charge.

Fourth, rethink behavior. A researcher went to teachers and asked them to watch videos of children in a preschool classroom. They were told to look for problematic behaviors. Almost half of them spent more time focusing on the Black boy than the white boy, white girl, or Black girl. The catch was that none of the children were misbehaving. We all have built in biases. I know that’s easy to admit, but it’s harder to admit that our biases cause harm. That Black boy will be monitored and reported on by his teacher, his boss, the police, and even random white people, changing the course of his life at every step. You can reduce the harm you will cause by thinking about what’s really going on behind a child’s action. Behavior is communication. We know children do well when they can. When they can’t, we need to identify the problem–whether it’s developmental, psychological, physical, or they’re just having a bad day. Extend the same grace you extend to your kids to other kids.

Finally, and this is a hard one. Don’t make our work your work. Last year, it was amazing to see the number of people come out for Black Lives Matter. There were protests around the world, books being bought, money being raised, organizations changing leadership. It was a great year to be Black. But people have gone back to living their lives. Those books are gathering dust on the shelves. What changed, besides a few pictures on social media? Who is doing the deep and hard day to day work? I don’t think it’s you. I’m not saying don’t give us money or share social media posts. Do give us money. But think about how you can make change not through us, but with us. What are you doing daily to defeat white supremacy? Hopefully it’s not talking to your Black friends about it. Hopefully it’s talking to your white friends, your white family about what you’ve learned. Hopefully you are sharing with your kids about how inequity shows up. Hopefully you’re doing this in months other than Black History Month. If you consider yourself “woke,” then your responsibility is to wake up others. Not by yelling at them on social media, but by real, uncomfortable conversations in real life. Yes, even with your racist uncle. We should not have to teach every white person how to treat us. You should. It’s a lot more effective than putting a Black Lives Matter sign in your yard.

So white supremacy sucks. Inequity is difficult. We have all the tools and resources we need to change things. COVID proved that. We just need to rethink who is worthy of those changes. For public schools, it’s privileged white kids. For Gastonia Freedom School, it’s Black and disabled kids. Who is it for you?

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Bettina Love is an educator and school abolitionist. Last year she was on a panel talking about education during COVID. She said something that stuck with me, and I’ll paraphrase. Last March, schools played their hand. Almost all the schools in the US closed, but students were still able to access education. How? Teachers got innovative and figured out ways to teach over Zoom. Districts and states found the money to get computers and hotspots to students that needed them. Bus drivers delivered lunches. Testing standards were suspended to account for the real psychological and educational toll the crisis was taking. It wasn’t perfect, but they showed they could do it. Children could access resources, parents could receive free help, teachers could be creative and flexible. Children could be evaluated in ways other than a standardized test. In a crisis, we redesigned the whole educational system to fit kids’ needs.

We are really good at ignoring problems when they don’t affect us. Conventional schooling has worked for millions, but if you’re at this conference, it probably didn’t work well for you. I’m here today to ask you to not make the same mistakes that conventional schools have made. Do not ignore problems just because they aren’t affecting you.

I’m a facilitator at Gastonia Freedom School. Their experiences are generally in the minority for kids, and that includes in self-directed education. I think it’s important for people in the majority to hear about marginalized people and how the world is different from them. When you move into the world of self-directed education, you want to create spaces and groups that are inclusive for them. Here are a few ideas.

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How did the ALC manage when schools shut down? Did they play their hand? We actually had a really awesome spring of online classes across centers, education/support groups for facilitators and parents, and a lot of activity on Slack. Some centers closed for good, but I was really proud of how we pivoted to provide mutual aid to each other during that time.

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In 2002, George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act into law. It took what had been a mishmash of varying state standards and created an overbearing and punitive national system of academic accountability. No Child Left Behind emphasized measurable goals to evaluate schools and districts, and that measure was testing. I was a high school junior. At that age, I was neither unused to standardized testing nor particularly bad at it. I had no experience of what the real world looked like, but even then I knew that picking the correct multiple choice answer more times than not was not part of it.

I have always wanted something better for my community. After ten years away, I moved back to my hometown and started observing what had happened to my neighborhood. I became a substitute teacher and later a teacher assistant in one of the worst performing middle schools.
As a substitute teacher and teacher assistant in my local public schools, I saw what No Child Left Behind had done to the schools

I won’t go on about the evils of standardized testing (and it is very evil) but what we now know about No Child Left Behind is that it left a lot of children behind. The “achievement gap” between races did not improve. Students with disabilities did not receive better services. Schools that were failing before the act did not miraculously improve now that they were being measured. Schools got better at one thing: administering tests.

COVID shut down most schools just a few months before annual testing was required.

Last semester I tutored a girl, 18 years old, who had already been placed in the school for “bad kids” and was struggling to make up two years of high school in a semester because she wanted to get her high school diploma. She was homeless and working at Waffle House. She was attending in person classes two days a week, but whether she was in the building or not, all she had to do was watch videos and answer multiple choice questions. Repeatedly. For 8 different classes. The second week she came to Gastonia Freedom School, I told her: “You don’t have to do this. You can test out for a GED right now and be done.” She was a Black girl, and she echoed generations of Black people when she told me, “I want to make it.”


Resources

Bettina Love: clip, full interview, text version

More along these lines:
“Fixating on Pandemic “Learning Loss” Undermines the Need to Transform Education”
“Even Preschoolers Face Racial Bias, Study Finds”