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Books: When [White] Parents Are An Obstacle To Making Schools More Equitable

Screen Shot 2015-10-15 at 6.11.32 PMIf you haven’t checked out the new book Despite The Best Intentions by Amanda Lewis, you really should do so – at least, based on a fascinating phone call I had with her earlier this week.

As you may recall, there's a long interview from WGN Chicago here: How does racial inequality thrive in good schools?. There's also mention of the book in this EdWeek piece How Does an Equity Audit Work?.

It’s not so much that the general topic of the book is so new or different. We all know about implicit racial bias at this point, and there are several much-discussed efforts underway to reduce suspensions and other practices that give some kids a much tougher time in school than they may already have.

But Lewis and her co-author bring some additional attention to the problematic role that white, privileged parents (and others) sometimes bring to making changes in schools that would help make them fairer or work better for other students.

“People don’t talk about this as much, how much white parents play a role in maintaining things as they are,” says Lewis.

They understandably behave towards the school in ways that benefit them and their kids, even if they originally started out with the goal of providing a diverse, equitable experience for their children.  Perhaps they want that on one hand, “but on the other hand -- even more than that -- they wanted their kids to have an advantaged experience.” As a result, they’re “worried about any changes that could affect their children’s protected experience of being in what is essentially a school within a school.”

Like others involved in making schools the way they are, these parents aren’t explicitly or consciously behaving in ways that exhibit racial bias or malice. And they’re not the sole culprit here – teachers, administrators, district policies all play a role -- and of course the larger society.  But their function in protecting or preserving advantages for their children are highlighted in ways that I don’t often see discussed.

What’s clear to Lewis and others is that Black and Latino kids aren't breaking the rules more often, “they're just getting punished more often.” They also may not be getting as much time as other kids to try and answer a question, or the same reaction from a teacher when they get a “B” on a test, or the same exceptions or accommodations as other kids if they fall short or break a rule.

These observations remind me of several similar remarks made over the years by folks as diverse as Bill and Melinda Gates and Dale Russakoff. The Gates funders have talked about the pushback their grantees have gotten from parents within schools, especially privileged enclaves. In her book about Newark, Russakoff noted that reformers who expected help from parents sometimes found that the parents best positioned were focused on finding or maintaining advantages in terms of teacher assignment and other things for their own children, not the school as a whole. (In this case, the parents were African-American, but the dynamic seems to be roughly parallel.)

“There’s this perception that having a desegregated space is going to benefit all kids,” says Lewis. But that’s not what often happens in practice. Paraphrasing an educator she worked with, Lewis says “The white kids always have to be understood and the black kids have to be disciplined.” And the exemptions and accommodations for the white kids mean that there’s little pressure to change an overly strict or unworkable rule. Just as white, college-educated parents disadvantage neighborhood schools by finding other options, white college-educated parents undercut diverse schools by seeking special treatment.

So far, at least, Lewis says that the school has responded positively to being portrayed in the book, and that at a recent talk at the Minority Student Achievement Network several superintendents said they thought Riverview sounded like it might be one of theirs. (I can imagine that the folks at the Consortium of Large Countywide and Suburban Districts would be interested in this, research, too.)

What can be done? Lewis and her co-author are working on a book trying to pull examples of changes that schools are trying that seem to have gotten some traction. For example, making sure to hire teachers who believe in a growth mindset, tracking informal disciplinary referrals that aren’t captured in official data, creating “earned” honors programs rather than standalone programs.

“There has to be some entity who's looking out for the larger common good,” says Lewis. “Our general societal commitment to the common good is not where it should be.” And it seems like parents’ commitment to the good of other children might not be there, either, she says.

“Parents aren't going to be the force for equity in our schools.” 

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