OK, I’ll play your silly game
When we were kids and I approached my brother with a fantastical premise, he used to tell me, “OK, I’ll play your silly game,”
What if we didn’t tell Mom that we broke the TV?
OK, I’ll play your silly game.
What if it just kept snowing and we had a snow days for the whole week?
OK, I’ll play your silly game.
And he would then explain to me what I wasn’t seeing in my often whimsical wish. I was so giddy that I couldn’t see basic fundamental rules and practices in our home that would squelch what seemed to me to be completely possible. Put simply, I didn’t get the bigger picture. As an adult, I am reminded of his words almost anytime I hear well-intentioned and fervent conversations in education about closing the achievement gap. As I read headlines and editorials about the virulent backlash against the highly successful Mexican American Studies program at Tucson High School, I am again reminded of the superficiality of our talk of closing the achievement gap is. We keep talking about closing this gap, as if that were remotely possible in our current social organization.
Of course I am not saying that some Native American, Latino, African American and, yes, even Asian American students cannot achieve as well, if not better, then some White students. This would be a ridiculous stance, certainly due of its unabashed racist sentiment but also because of its ignorant premise that achievement has anything to do with a person’s race or ethnicity. Race is a social construct, as are the relative locations of different races or ethnicities in society. To forget that achievement rates are closely linked not just to learning but also to how education is designed to work better for some than others is a fundamental mistake.
In many minds, education figures prominently as the location where the inequalities in society can be actively addressed. Despite overwhelming evidence of the complexity in what contributes to social stability and mobility, education maintains its central place of promised equity. Ever fond of sports metaphors, Americans often colloquially refer to education as the way to ‘level the playing field,’ meaning that while children may be born into differential environments, education can enable us to transcend the constraints of those environments. This widely-held belief in the promise of education is echoed in policies and governmental actions. In the United States, access to a free and public education has been negotiated by various groups and awarded as a symbol of this opportunity (Brown vs. Board of Education, 1954; Lau v. Nichols, 1974). In fact, national progress in civil rights is almost always examined in consideration of how equity and inequity plays out within the field of education. By that measure of educational opportunity and success, the report card is and has been dismal for hundreds of years. And in concert, there is constant discussion about how to close the achievement gap.
Were he an educator, I am sure my brother would say, OK, I’ll play your silly game, let’s say we close the achievement gap. How do you see that playing out? How do we envision our society, one structured on capitalism and differential social statuses, largely according to race and class, reorganizing itself to now accommodate more people who have succeeded in schools? Will it simply organically do away with strata of upper, middle and working classes? Even if we are conscious of our framing and instead approach the gaps as ones of debt rather than achievement, as Gloria Ladson Billings advised in 2006, how will a discriminatory system react to changes in the storied trends of who achieves and who doesn’t? I’m afraid that the current banning of Mexican American studies has much to teach us about what does actually happen when the achievement gap narrows.
The case of the MAS program at Tucson High School is not a simple one. There are compelling facts, though, that make the banning of this program at best problematic and at worst racist. The students in this program, which educates high school students about Mexican American and indigenous root culture, historical figures and social movements and prepare these young people to be transformative leaders. According to a report prepared by the Tucson district’s director of accountability and research, students enrolled these courses outperformed and persisted to graduation at higher rates than students not in the courses. Sounds a lot like a gap being narrowed to me.
The response from then-Superintendent and now Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne and subsequent state and district leaders has been to seek the elimination of the MAS program, through codified law. Horne and others claim that MAS is an anti-American program that promotes ethnic solidarity. In 2010, the state of Arizona passed H.B. 2280 which banned classes that “promote the overthrow of the United States government, promote resentment toward a race or class of people, are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group, and advocate ethnic solidarity instead of treatment of pupils as individuals.” In this case, fear of ethnic solidarity trumps narrowing the achievement gap. Or, to be more precise, fear of other peoples’ ethnic solidarity trumps narrowing the achievement gap.
As anyone remotely familiar with the stories of domination and oppression, it rarely goes unnoticed when those in a lower social position start to self-educate and organize. It often is received with a smackdown. In confederate states in the 1800s and before, slaves suffered severe punishment for the crime of literacy, from savage beatings to the amputation of fingers and toes. Anyone caught teaching a slave to read would be fined, imprisoned, or whipped. Following the 1970s, when African American student’s reading scores starting approaching those of their White counterparts, the federal policy, A Nation at Risk, was issued. That policy document led to comprehensive high schools which focused dogmatically on a “back to basics” education emphasizing rote skill and memorization. Test scores reversed momentum, and the gap widened. To connect these dots, we have to look not just at the test scores or the policy statement but the context to consider how these events may be related, and we must do the same with the current conflict in Tucson.
The lessons are sobering. When those in lower social positions begin not just to approach the performance of the traditionally successful but also form group identities, the response is swift and punitive. To be honest, I actually do not disagree that teaching an ethnic studies course leads to at least some anti-American sentiment. In essence, when the United States history is studied from anything but a European based, colonizing perspective, we might reduce the numbers of unquestioning patriot. But the upside is that we may gain patriots who love with criticism and commitment to change. Criticism does not automatically equate with plans to overthrow the nation. It might, however, lead to a better nation.
The problem, though, is that the location of these potentially beneficial perspectives is exclusively an ethnic studies course, instead of the American History course that everyone is required to take. This is what is known in academic circles as marginalization.
What is perhaps most astounding in the case of Tucson is that, from those sympathetic to the destruction of the program, there is a flagrant disregard for the academic successes of the MAS students. Tucson blogger David Hatfield wrote on January 20, 2012 that now that the program has been officially banned by the district and lots of ‘ethnically inclined’ books taken out of classrooms, Tucson can get back to the business of improving education for its K-12 students. This ignores the fact that the MAS program demonstrated excellent gains for its students. Instead of actually engaging with objections about the program and providing leadership on how to deal with a decrease in American patriotism, which has not been proven, the response was to simply shut the program down. In this case, criticism is not welcome. There are, apparently, only two volume settings for how to be an American high school student: individual patriotism or nothing. The state-orchestrated squelching of the MAS program is not so much about achievement and learning as it is about social place and obedience.
The MAS students at Tucson High School are getting an unplanned but fierce education about success in the United States. Their education is not about how to attain success but how to survive the onslaughts when you’ve learned too much and too well.