Teaching in Black and White: Thoughts on Race and Education Reform

Notebook blogger Samuel Reed and I go toe-to-toe on issues of race and education reform.  

Yesterday, public school teacher Samuel Reed (who wrote a very insightful review of my book The Village Proposal) published a blog post on the Notebook headlined, “Education reform sparring match with Christopher Paslay.”  Although the two of us have corresponded via email over the past several years, I finally had the pleasure of meeting Sam in person at a recent teacher leadership event; it was there that Sam pursued his idea of having an honest and friendly education reform “sparring match” between the two of us. 

Here is an excerpt of Sam’s post covering our discussion:  

I finally had a face-to-face chat with Christopher Paslay at an end-of-the-school-year celebration with the Teacher Leadership Professional Learning Community (PLC). We agreed to put some padded gloves on and have a sparring match on education reform.

Samuel Reed: Chris, in your response to my review of your book, The Village Proposal, you state, “To my chagrin, not a whole lot of people gave a crap.” Why should people care about education reform?

Christopher Paslay: Schools and education do not exist in a vacuum.

Everyone is part of schools and education — teachers, students, parents, administrators, community members, business leaders, clergy, lawmakers, etc. Yet somehow our society seems to think schools are cut off from all this, that they are some free-floating entity that operates independent of all these factors.

Politicians talk of “broken schools,” as if they aren’t the ones writing the policy.

Parents speak of “low achievement,” as if they have nothing to do to with helping their children complete assignments and practice new skills.

Community leaders speak out against “school violence,” as if the drugs and crime in their own neighborhoods do not carry over to their schools.

The fact is, everyone is part of schools and education, which is why everyone should care; schools stem from communities, not the other way around.

Reed: I received many comments offline responding to our discourse about social justice. Some folks are not buying that we should strive for a color-blind society. What’s wrong with confronting the impact race and class issues have on teaching and learning? . . .

Click here to read our discussion in its entirety.

Thanks for reading.

Christopher Paslay

5 thoughts on “Teaching in Black and White: Thoughts on Race and Education Reform

  1. Chris;
    I enjoyed reading and reviewing you book as much as I did having a frank discussion about issues that folks often don’t feel comfortable talking about in the teacher’s lounge.

    As one commenter on the Notebook said “There are many subtle differences in perspective, but I can also see how there are huge connections and good intent for the benefit of our students…

    Chris I applaud your gamesmanship. Let’s figure out more ways to take these frank talks out in the public sphere and then come up with some concrete strategies to make the Village Proposal an action plan for school reform.

  2. I would rather see a discussion about our instruction with urban youth rather than why we think they are not learning. We cannot change their environments, their parents, or their culture ( referring back to your article on students who are late) so why worry about these issues. There will always be poor students who have awful parents and live in violent neighborhoods. The question is not how do we fix those problems but how do we teach the kids while they are in school with us. Maybe as a high school teacher these issues impact you more but I taught grade school kids and most if not all 6 year olds are dying to learn to read and do math.

    From your link I read:

    “An example of this was the recent study by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which reported that Black students are more than three times as likely as their White peers to be suspended or expelled. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and a number of civil rights groups insinuated that this was the result of racism and discrimination by White teachers. The analysis of the report by Duncan and other social justice advocates failed to note that Black students are three times as poor as their White peers (and have three times as many behavioral and educational challenges), which might explain to a large extent why they are getting removed from classrooms three times as often.”

    i would say that some of the expelling of students is due to the fact that they cannot do the work because schools are using failed methods and in particular failed reading methods to instruct inner city students.

    I run a reading tutoring project in my school and we use a method from the 1960’s that focuses on explicit reading instruction. All kids learn to read with the method. However it is not a popular method. Universities do not like explicit instruction. It is seen as boring. Teachers do not like it. I cannot possibly go into all the pros and cons of reading instruction in my post but for me, that is what needs to be discussed, not how bad everything is in the lives of our students. We have these kids for 6-7 hours a day. We need to use methods of instruction that work. If the reading instruction we are currently using worked all kids would be reading in your HS classes and a lot of the kids would not be so bad and need expelling. They would be able to handle the work given to them in HS.

    Here is a study done on the method I use that found that socio-economic levels did not impact a child’s ability to learn to read.



  3. Kathy,

    As a 15 year English teacher, I’m big on literacy. In my book “The Village Proposal” I have an entire chapter on the issues you just mentioned. Our society is all about quick sound bites and instant gratification (patience is no longer a virtue), and this is drastically affecting attention spans and as a result, literacy in children. Unfortunately, SES does have an effect on literacy, as all the research shows (look up the research by Hart & Risely). However, I think you made a good point that we CAN teach students, no matter their background; this is what I do for a living everyday.

    I do disagree with you when you said, “We cannot change their environments, their parents, or their culture (referring back to your article on students who are late) so why worry about these issues. There will always be poor students who have awful parents and live in violent neighborhoods.” I absolutely DO NOT believe this. We CAN change culture, values, attitudes. One example is the acceptance of gays and lesbians with teens and adolescents. Homophobia for decades was embedded in urban culture and public schools, but attitudes are changing for the better. I’ve seen a drastic shift in attitudes and acceptance in my own students in just the last 10 years.

    If culture and SES are having an impact on things that are important to students like getting a job and being successful–like punctuality, dress, language, etc.–than it is our job as educators to correct these misconceptions and make sure students have the skills they need to succeed; “time” regarding bus schedules, job interviews, parking meters, tax returns, etc. is NOT relative to culture. My point in addressing the rate of expulsions by race was because I wanted to show that expulsions are not primarily the result of racism or racial insensitivities by teachers as suggested by Arne Duncan and civil rights lawyers (who make a living calling people racists), that they are related to other variables, like poverty. But you proved my point by attributing this to instructional methods, which I agree with in part.


  4. I agree with your statement:

    “We CAN change culture, values, attitudes. One example is the acceptance of gays and lesbians with teens and adolescents. ”

    I thought you were referring to individual students and trying to change their environments or parents or beliefs. If a HS wants to offer a class on how to apply for a job and get it, that would be fine. Teach kids about being on time for important appointments in the class. Schools could offer classes for parents too. But looking to change students who might not want to change their beliefs or culture seems to be a difficult and dangerous task.

    I think we should focus on instruction- give students the skills they need to succeed and then let them decide to change their own lives to what they think is the best way to live.

    So far we are not doing this in reading and we are handicapping kids who do not need more handicaps. If a child becomes a good reader early he or she can then use that skill to build vocabulary which will help them with understanding the books you want them to read in your classes. Kids can’t accomplish anything great until they can read and until we do that we are going nowhere in urban education. For me this is the most important issue that needs discussing.


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