Eye on The Notebook: Are Philadelphia School Teachers Really Bigots?



by Christopher Paslay


To help The Philadelphia Public School Notebook bring quality and equality to all public schools, I am posting a regular forum here on Chalk and Talk called Eye on The Notebook.  Its purpose is to provide The Notebook and its readers with constructive feedback from teachers who work day-to-day in real classrooms and experience the district’s problems firsthand.  Although The Notebook analyzes a wide variety of educational issues, too often their conclusions are limited in scope and perspective. 


Eye on The Notebook will attempt to bring a more grounded analysis of issues that face our city’s public schools.  I will dissect selected Notebook articles and add depth to their findings.  In tandem with The Notebook, this blog hopes to uncover the true root causes of problems concerning the Philadelphia School District and offer practical, realistic solutions.




In their recent article, “A national trend: Black and Latino boys predominate in emotional support classes,” the Notebook explains that a disproportionate number of black and Latino boys are placed in special education.  Although they effectively shine a light on this issue, they oversimplify the problem by blaming it primarily on racism. 


“Many say racial biases among those who refer and evaluate students for special education are a factor,” the Notebook writes.  They also suggest there is an “unconscious racial discrimination by school authorities.”


As an experienced, hard-working teacher in the Philadelphia School District, I find this reasoning off-base and offensive.  There may exist a cultural gap between students and teachers, but to insinuate that minority students predominate in emotional support classes because they are being discriminated against by racially prejudiced teachers and counselors, most of whom are white, is insulting and intentionally misleading.     


The Notebook is too far removed from the day-to-day reality of urban classrooms to accurately diagnose problems, and as a result, they offer generic solutions. 


There are two layers to the problem of minorities and special education.  First is the fact that black and Latino males are “acting out” too often in school.  Second is that teachers are sometimes misinterpreting this behavior.  The Notebook does a marvelous job of overlooking the former and highlighting the latter.  Even if we succeed in reducing the number of black and Latino boys in emotional support classes, their unruly behavior will still remain.  And where will we be then?   


In the end, the student’s behavior is everything.  No employer is going to put up with a young man who continues to act out.        


So how do we change a student’s behavior? 


One solution is providing students with Positive Behavior Supports.  According to a plan designed by the Institute for Human Development at Northern Arizona University, “Positive Behavior Support (PBS) is an approach to helping people improve their difficult behavior that is based on four things:


1.  An Understanding that people (even caregivers) do not control others, but seek to support others in their own behavior change process;


2.  A Belief that there is a reason behind most difficult behavior, that people with difficult behavior should be treated with compassion and respect, and that they are entitled to lives of quality as well as effective services;


3.  The Application of a large and growing body of knowledge about how to better understand people and make humane changes in their lives that can reduce the occurrence of difficult behavior; and


4.  A Conviction to continually move away from coercion – the use of unpleasant events to manage behavior.     


PBS is effective because it treats the problems (poor communication and anger management skills)—not the symptoms (a false label).  If used correctly, it can literally change a student’s entire life. 


Instead of making sweeping generalizations and pulling the race card, The Notebook should focus its attention on a process that can rectify misbehaviors and give students back control of their educations.  Doing so might be more beneficial for students, and less offensive and insulting to teachers.     


10 thoughts on “Eye on The Notebook: Are Philadelphia School Teachers Really Bigots?

  1. I like the fact that you are working in tandem with the Notebook to help understand and solve problems. We all know that everyone has a voice and diversity of ideas brings more light to the situation. Having an outside view and an inside view will assist the total understanding. One of the most productive segments in this article is the introduction of PBS. In my humble opinion, every article written by the Notebook and your Blog should have a solutions component. This article fits that model. A second vital principal is to focus on the root causes of a problem. Without this there will be no improvement.
    A final question that the Notebook brings to the surface is: With African-American Superintendents, Principals, Administrators, teachers, counselors, Mayors, Presidents, and numerous other leaders–why are the numbers still tilted? Is this Black on Black bias or are most of the people in the Philadelphia School District –hardworking, caring, concerned and dedicated to helping? Let’s turn the information around for a second. Could someone from the Notebook please identify 100 students who are misplaced, falsely accused, or inappropriately classified. Then we can follow the paper trail and see who made these poor decisions. PLEASE DON’T STEREOTYPE EVERYONE. Let’s agree that when stereotyping is taking place (by any organization) that it be recognized as improper and damaging.

  2. Positive Behavior Supports are clearly the answer to getting minority children out of special education, not stereotyping caring, hardworking teachers as discriminatory. But this Philadelphia Public School Notebook piece is pretty flimsy to begin with. There are five—count them, FIVE—unnamed sources in their article (A national trend: Black and Latino boy predominate in emotional support classes):

    In paragraph 4: “Many say racial biases among those who refer and evaluate students for special education are a factor.” Who are the “many”?

    In paragraph 6: “White teachers in urban school districts unfamiliar with the language and survival strategies many students acquire outside of school are more likely to make inappropriate referrals, research suggests.” What “research”?

    In paragraph 9: “Studies indicate the risk of students being identified with a disability varies by race, even controlling for the effects of class.” Which “studies”?

    In paragraph 14: “A District official observed that often it is the parents who want an evaluation.” Which “official”?

    In paragraph 18: “Local advocates believe most parents don’t understand that overrepresentation of children of color in special education is a systemwide problem.” Who are the “advocates”?

    I’m going to use this article in my future journalism classes when we do lessons on sources and attribution. This will be an example of what NOT to do.

    –Chris Paslay

  3. I like that you are attempting to address this issue. Teachers are only human beings. So, you can end this speculation by saying that some of them are probably bigots. However, the question is posed in such a way as to make the specific number of teachers who are supposedly bigots fairly nebulous. Saying things like “all” or “always” is a mistake because there is almost nothing in the world that “always” or “never” happens.

    People that don’t teach in Philadephia’s public schools couldn’t possibly understand the choices we are forced to make with other people’s children. I don’t feel that many of the teachers I have known have ever judged a young person on the color of their skin. I have never seen a teacher label a student based on the color of his/her skin, either.

    In my experience, it isn’t the color of the skin that becomes a determining factor for just about anything. I find that it is socio-economic status that determines a great deal about the behavior and physical/mental well-being of a child. Many of the students I teach come from very bad homes. Many of them are also at poverty level. It seems fairly clear to me that there is a connection between people who have fallen between the cracks and the lives they lead in the poorest neighborhoods of our city.

    It usually goes:

    Young person goes to school.
    Young person has a bad home life.
    Young person drops out of school or does very poorly.
    This person has no skills and almost no job prospects.
    This person finds someone and has a child.
    This child now comes from a home where education and cognitive development is totally unimportant.
    Young person under-performs in school.
    Young person drops out of school or does very poorly.

    You’ll notice that the color of this child’s skin is irrelevant to the information I provided.

    So, I don’t children get targeted because of their skin color. I just think that in many of the poor neighborhoods you have a large number of african-american and latino children who happen to be living examples of this model.

    The people who pose the theory that our teachers are bigoted just doesn’t see the whole picture.

    It’s pretty typical, actually.

  4. Glad to see the Notebook’s story “A national trend: Black and Latino boys predominate in emotional support classes,” getting a little attention and some reaction from teachers at Chalk and Talk. I welcome everyone to start posting your reactions to Notebook articles on our brand new site, http://www.thenotebook.org, which now allows for comments on everything we write.

    Given that we’re dealing with a widely recognized and pervasive national problem, I was disappointed that Chris essentially reframed the issue as “Notebook calls Philadelphia teachers bigots.” But I’ll try to get past his provocative headline to the substance.

    Chris- the issue is not as simple as addressing bad behavior, wherever it takes place. The issue is also making sure students are getting appropriately placed so they can get the services they need.

    I don’t see how it’s “playing the race card” to highlight and discuss the overrepresentation of Black and Latino boys in emotional support classes. African American boys are six times more likely to be identified as “emtionally disturbed” as White girls. They are one-fourth as likely to be identified as mentally gifted. That has to make any thinking person wonder what’s up. Given those statistics, I don’t see how it is playing the race card to delve into whether some African American students are not being properly labeled.

    As our article stated, there is no shortage of studies and knowledgeable education advocates who maintain that amidst a complex set of factors, there may be some racial and cultural biases at play. I’m holding at a fat folder of articles on that subject that our author, Sylvia Morse, assembled. Unfortunately, we only had room to quote one study, two advocates, and three district officials in her short column, all of whom felt that it was important and legitimate to try to understand and address the factors behind this overrepresentation.

    If you want to know more about what people who have studied this have to say, I encourage you to google some of the other articles written on this subject, such as: “Racial Inequity in Special Education” from the Harvard Civil Rights Project; the 2005 NY Times article about Connecticut called “Special Education and Minorities;” and “Reducing the Disproportionate Representation of Minority Students in Special Education” from the ERIC Digest.

    Solutions: Chris highlights positive behavioral supports, which may in fact be a great way to help deal with children who are acting out. Perhaps if applied on a wide scale, students would be better understood, and it could even help reduce the misdiagnosing of kids as needing special education. But it’s not a silver bullet for a complicated problem. Nor is inclusion, but it was very interesting to hear how special education referrals went down at Decatur School after teachers realized that it was no longer a way to unload difficult students. But I’d also like to believe in the possibility that folks who have chosen to work in a school system that serves large numbers of students of color and low income students would be willing to be a little self-reflective about what biases and assumptions about their students they may bring to work with them.

  5. Paul,

    Thank you for accepting my invitation to join the discussion here on Chalk and Talk. The Notebook’s new website is very well done, and I look forward to visiting (and commenting) often. Allow me to continue the dialogue about the above post. I believe a very large majority of Philadelphia public school teachers ARE self-reflective about what biases and assumptions they bring into the classroom. Philadelphia public school teachers are all college educated, some of us even hold masters degrees and doctorates. Courses in multicultural and urban education are a core part of our training (I’m currently working on a masters in multicultural ed.). We’ve all attended workshops on diversity and differentiated instruction. Many of us live in or near the actual communities where we teach, and interact positively with people from a multitude of races. We are caring, hard working and compassionate. Often times we go above and beyond the call of duty: We arrive to school early in the morning and stay late in the afternoon to mentor, coach, and tutor. We work hard to welcome parents and bond with our students. And almost all of us do this regardless of race and ethnic background.

    Sure, studies show that a disproportionate number of minorities are placed in emotional support programs. But if you look closely, all these statistics are really measuring is population verses placement. To reference the ERIC Digest report you recommended (Reducing the Disproportionate Representation of Minority Students in Special Education): In 1992, black students accounted for 16 percent of the total U.S. student population, but represented 32% of students in programs for mild mental retardation (MMR), 29% in programs for moderate mental retardation, and 24% in programs for serious emotional disturbance (SED). So what SHOULD the numbers be? Because black students only make up 16 percent of the U.S. student population, their representation in special education should be no more than 16%? Is that the reasoning? The numbers don’t match so we can generalize and conclude that teachers have racial biases? In other words: Criminals carry guns. Jon has a gun. Therefore, Jon must be a criminal.

    I will admit there do exist teachers who may unconsciously (and in extreme cases consciously) place minorities in emotional support classes because of a racial bias or cultural gap, but to say this is the main reason why black and Latino boys predominate in special education is oversimplifying the problem. Those who subscribe to this reasoning lack a true perspective of the complex dynamics of urban education. The reality is, members of the Harvard Civil Rights Project and The New York Times do not interact with minority children on a day-to-day basis—they conduct studies and crunch numbers. They don’t spend days and weeks and months trying to teach students how to control their anger and communicate their feelings without resorting to violence—they reference data and cite research. They can’t comprehend the uphill battle of being a teacher in the inner-city, of having limited resources from the district and community, of having limited help from mom and dad, of playing the role of teacher, and counselor, and doctor, and mentor, and motivator.

    The biggest irony is that African Americans are an integral part of the city of Philadelphia as well as the school district. Mayor Nutter is African American. So are a number of City Councilman. So is the schools chief, Arlene Ackerman. So is the Chair of the School Reform Commission, Sandra Dungee-Glenn. So are many principals, and administrators, and counselors, and teachers. How do you explain the racial bias here? The cultural gap?

    The process for placing students in emotional support programs isn’t willy-nilly, as implied by The Notebook’s article. There is a very thorough and lengthy process, which is well documented every step of the way. The student being referred must undergo a series of evaluations and standardized tests. These evaluations are administered by specialized teams, most of which are made up of special education teachers, counselors, psychologists and medical doctors. And by law, the process must involve the parent of the child and the referring teacher. This is done so if there IS a bias, it can be identified and actions can be taken to rectify the misdiagnosis.

    Again, as I stated in my original post, the focus shouldn’t be on labels, but on providing positive behavior supports for troubled children. Although it may not be a “silver bullet for a complicated problem” as you state in your comments, placing all of our attention on what is percieved to be racial discrimination by teachers is not the answer either.

    –Chris Paslay

  6. Believe me, we at the Notebook know intimately how hard most teachers work. But sometimes the best of intentions are besides the point. Your response still begs the question – Isn’t it important to understand the overrepresentation of Black and Latino boys in certain special ed classifications? And similarly, shouldn’t we deal with why these same groups are so underrepresented in mentally gifted classrooms?

    One reason these issues are avoided is that a lot of people want to believe that now that we have Blacks in leadership at every level, our country has solved the problem of institutional racism and that every child has an equal chance to succeed. These numbers unfortunately show how far we still have to go.

  7. I enjoyed the comment by Paul S.and the response from Chris. Now we are getting to the nitty gritty and some specifics. Generalities and broad brush statements are worthless and in fact, damaging.
    ***I have a specific request that will bring to light specific facts and specific information leading to a more specific premise of the problem—Please list 100, or 50, or 2o or just 10 cases from Philadelphia that were specifically pushed through the system “because of white teacher’s bias, prejudice, or discrimination against a minority child.” Let’s start with some hard facts. If you come up with a large list of documented cases that clearly prove your case then we can move ahead with your premise. If you can’t come up with 10 or 20 cases that clearly prove your point–then I suggest we work together to find the “real root causes” of high % of minorities in special ed, etc.
    Dragnet had it right in the 1950″s —“Just the facts Mam; just the facts.”

  8. Paul,

    It IS important to understand the overrepresentation of black and Latino boys in certain special education classes. It is also important to analyze why these same groups are underrepresented in mentally gifted programs. But why is the first reaction always “institutional racism”?

    There are other common factors among these students besides race. Poverty is one. Another is the lack of a safe and supportive community environment. Still another is the absence of adequate guidance from parents. Unfortunately, these realities are present among many of the populations of black and Latino children who are “misrepresented” in emotional support classes. If it were simply a matter of race, than why do black and Latino students at Central, Masterman, Girls High, CAPA and Engineering and Science have such high numbers in mentally gifted programs and low numbers in special education? Maybe because these students come from more affluent families? Maybe because they come from stable home environments where their mothers and fathers model proper communication skills, teach them how to resolve conflicts nonviolently, and instill in them the value and importance of getting an education?

    Let’s for a moment suspend the familiar premise of institutional racism and turn our attention to a matter that no one wants to talk about: Parents and communities. Maybe THEY are failing to give their children an equal opportunity to succeed (of course, liberal education advocates and civil rights organizations refute this argument, because parents of minorities are already given immunity under the “institutional racism” guise).

    So what ARE the solutions? You state in your comments that the issue isn’t as simple as adressing bad behavior, but also making sure students get appropriately placed so they can get the services they need. My question is, what are these nebulous “services”? If we can’t hold parents accountable, and we rule out all the programs included in special education classes (emotional disturbance programs, etc.), and we admit that Positive Behavior Supports and inclusion are not a “silver bullet for a complicated problem,” then what’s left?

    I’ll tell you what’s left: Accusing teachers of harboring racial prejudices against their students. That’s the only socially acceptable and politically correct option available. Talk about institutional discrimination.

    The tragedy is, until we change this kind of thinking, the achievement gap is NEVER going to close.

    –Chris Paslay

  9. Many parents asked for their children to be put in sp ed classes. They can then qualify for SSI for their children. It is a way of life. Students tell us things.

  10. But it’s not a silver bullet for a complicated problem. Nor is inclusion, but it was very interesting to hear how special education referrals went down at Decatur School after teachers realized that it was no longer a way to unload difficult students. >P Socolar

    This is not only untrue, it’s seriously misleading, especially to the general public who knows little about Special Ed. placement. One cannot “unload” difficult students, and have them plunked into special classes. Actually it sometimes take years before a referral is even addressed.

    If you were to sit in on a “regular” classroom, and watch a continuously seriously disruptive child make him/herself the focus of the classroom, you would see that most teachers not only know HOW to refer a child for evaluation, but also the difference between an active child, and one needing special services.

    It’s an arduous process to evaluate and place a child, and there are many steps and people involved. It’s hardly about race, as many of us teach in predominantly African American schools, and if there was such a bias, most caucasion teachers wouldn’t be here for 25+ years.
    You may want to look into the idea that schools get extra money for each new special educaton student.

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