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Education reform sparring match with Christopher Paslay

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

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?

Paslay: Isn’t the goal of confronting the impact of race and class structure on education (as well as the rest of society) to ultimately create a color-blind environment where everyone is treated equally regardless of race, gender, religion, and sexuality?

We can analyze race and its impact on education, but not to the point where it becomes identity politics. Getting too caught up in race can become polarizing and divisive, especially when it’s flat-out political and has little to do with solving a problem (or when it operates under a double standard).

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.

Reed: So, which came first the chicken or egg? Is poverty caused by racism or does racism allow poverty to persist disproportionately in certain communities?

Paslay: The fact that the lurking variable of poverty was ignored is identity politics in its truest form. What the report didn’t do is address some real concerns and issues in urban education, namely the need to bring traditional values back to public schools (honesty, integrity, respect for authority) and the need to reverse the disintegration of the Black nuclear family (70 percent of Black babies in the U.S. are born out-of-wedlock). Bill Cosby had the right idea about human interactions when he said he always wanted his comedy to focus on the things that made people the same, not dwell on the differences. Every theme of every episode of The Cosby Show was a universal human theme, a powerful message that transcended race and applied to everyone, not just Black, or poor, or gay, or whatever. This is the direction we must go in teaching and education today.

Reed: While reading your book, I was also reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Do you think the school-to-prison pipeline mantra is a hoax?

Paslay: Alexander’s school-to-prison pipeline mantra has some validity. There is no doubt that slavery and racial segregation have put minorities at a disadvantage in the U.S. After generations of poverty and oppression, it’s going to take some time for all affected communities of color to break the cycle of poverty and get up to speed with the ever-changing and complex workings of 21st-century American society. There is a very real need for the system to provide assistance to help minorities do just that. With that said, however, I don’t agree that the government or the American establishment has consciously created a school-to-prison pipeline in order to keep minorities at the bottom of the class system.

Reed: But how do we explain our state’s exponential increase in corrections spending compared to its decrease in education spending? Isn’t this a systemic governmental problem?

Paslay: A major cause of the school-to-prison pipeline is a person’s faulty belief that they are helpless (low expectations). The “victim mentality,” which often goes hand-in-hand with social justice, is a very dangerous thing.

Human beings always have a choice. Always. Viktor Frankl’s powerful book Man’s Search for Meaning exemplifies this point. It is the story of Frankl’s survival in a Nazi concentration camp and how, no matter what the situation, Frankl had a choice of how he would respond. In other words, he wasn’t able to control the things being done to him, but he could control his reaction and attitude to this treatment. He went on to survive the Holocaust and help millions through his later work.

Is there a school-to-prison pipeline? There doesn’t have to be. If you want to stay in school, study and do your work. If you want to stay out of prison, don’t break any laws. Students do have a choice, and they must constantly be reminded of this. They are not victims. This is my golden rule in my classroom.

Reed: How do you sidestep the critics who say as a “privileged White teacher” you should not have co-opted the African “village” concept for a title of your book?

Paslay: I don’t buy into identity politics, so it doesn’t matter. I truly believe, as I think most Americans do (once they get down from their political soapbox, that is), that we should focus our energy on treating people as people. I’m not being naive or idealistic when I say this, either.

Think about the interpersonal relationships in your own life. Think about the people closest to you in your daily relationships. Do you see them as people, or as Black, White, poor, gay, etc.? Paulo Freire, the self-proclaimed Marxist who wrote the famous Pedagogy of the Oppressed, was an early pioneer of class warfare and understood that in order to incite true revolution and bring down the “dominant oppressive culture,” you had to divide and conquer. You had to call names, label people, hold skin color near and dear. You had to turn rich against poor, Black against White, gay against straight, men against women, Christians against Muslims (much the same way our current president is doing).

So to those who would say that I shouldn’t have lifted the African “village” idea for my book that was written to unite people and improve education because I am a “privileged White teacher,” I would say phooey. I worked my tail off to get where I am today, paid for most of my education, followed the rules, made good decisions, and am somewhat successful. Nothing has been given to me for free (just ask my freshman students who ran me through the gauntlet back in 1997 during my rookie year as a teacher). Was I blessed with good parents? Yes. Was I born healthy and relatively intelligent? Yes. Do I believe I have a “White privilege” that gives me a free ride or special treatment over other folks? Not really.

Reed: What do you think of the School District of Philadelphia’s pendulum shift toward more school-based autonomy and achievement networks? Does this mean teachers can move away from teaching to the test?

Paslay: Teachers will never move away from teaching to the test until the culture of public education moves away from the tone established by No Child Left Behind, which is the overreliance on high-stakes tests. NCLB is more about satisfying the public’s urge to hold teachers and schools “accountable” (and all the politics behind controlling money, resources, curriculum, etc.) than it is about learning and improving instruction. Nonetheless, my gut feeling is that the School District of Philadelphia’s apparent shift to more school-based autonomy is a good thing. Principals should have more flexibility and autonomy to make decisions and shape and control policy and curriculum. The issues presented at the June 18 SRC meeting by the District’s principals are a great example of the need for principal autonomy.

As for achievement networks, I think this is simply reinventing the wheel. The District is, without a doubt, too big to manage successfully (there is too much bureaucracy, too little transparency, and too many cracks for things to slip into), but this problem can only be solved from the bottom up and not the top down — through a more educated and engaged community; truly engaged parents, not high-stakes tests, are the only true way to hold teachers and schools “accountable.”

Reed: Okay, boxing gloves off. What are your plans for the summer? What are you incubating in your teaching and writing lab?

Paslay: This summer I am continuing my coursework in school counseling. I also plan to continue to write and blog about education and other interests. As for my teaching, I’m beginning to generate new activities around Pennsylvania’s Common Core Standards, which the District is rolling out this coming school year.

Christopher Paslay teaches high school English in the Philadelphia School District. He is a frequent contributor to the Philadelphia Inquirer and a prolific education blogger on Chalk and Talk. His book, The Village Proposal, was published in 2011 by Rowman & Littlefield.

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