Reading “Inequality In The Promised Land”


R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy writes about how Black and White children and families experience school and the attendant opportunities in a Midwest suburban district. The title of his book, Inequality In The Promised Land (2014), describes the unfulfilled dreams of Black families who sought better education outcomes for their children enrolled in a suburban school district and the actions of white families that inadvertently or otherwise frustrate Blacks and other minorities in securing the same level of resources, opportunities and influence. Lewis-McCoy spent 4 years conducting one hundred in depth interviews with families, school officials, and teachers along with studying the local demographic and political history of the district referred to as Rolling Acres Public Schools.

It is an academic book and I am all in my feelings. Lewis-McCoy talks about “concerted cultivation” of children that commonly happens in White middle class families. He describes the ways in which those same families throw their political weight around by being particularly vocal in making demands on school officials to insure the best resources and opportunities for their own children by resisting efforts that specifically seek to address racial disparities in both opportunities and outcomes. As I was reading about policy initiatives aimed at ‘closing the achievement gap’ and hearing white residents espouse how much they value the diversity in the community while also locating the reasons for achievement gap disparities firmly within Black families and not in the systems of school, I felt so weary.

My mother was fighting these battles when we were young. She pursued concerted cultivation with a vengeance and perhaps because my brother and I arrived at a time in her life when she was more at liberty to take advantage of certain opportunities, we were able to engage in all manner of extra curricular activities. My older brother certainly had his share of scouting then school sports that filled his schedule. Our home was filled with books, we were used to traveling all over the city, shopping at suburban malls as if we lived there. We knew lots about life beyond our neighborhood. And now as adults, my brother and I are firmly anchored in the middle class.

With my own children I have had the means to similarly pursue “concerted cultivation.” Supporting their varied interests in everything from electronics to club sports, summer camps and theater pursuits. They have gotten the message: “try everything.” Because they may. They enjoy the benefit of an “abstract approach” to their further education, rather than an “utitlity-focused” approach which would suggest seeking a field of study or training likely to yield the best return on investment.

My parents, who grew up during the depression, came of age during the second World War and became race barrier-crossing homeowners in the late 50’s, seemed to be fixated on the inherent value of education. As kids we understood that college was a non-negotiable. My mother completed her BA and my father finished an associate degree. My older sister who was an adult when I was born was the first child of theirs to finish college. The path was set, we only needed to travel it. And we all did.

I see now how painfully aware they were of the fact that our education was not only about the schools we visited but everything else we did as well. We were involved in our conservative Lutheran church, we participated in boy and girls scouts, respectively. We grew up familiar with museums, libraries, theaters, concerts and events in far-flung corners of our Northern section of the state. My parents understood the value of acquiring these middle class understandings. And to some of their Black friends and family members, these efforts seemed misplaced or unnecessary or simply beyond my parents’ means. My mother mentioned this kind of commentary fairly often and used it to reiterate her fundamental aim of “exposure, exposure, exposure.”

I grew up being exposed and now that’s a large part of what I do online. Expose myself to new knowledge, old knowledge, relevant knowledge, recycled knowledge. I share widely and aim to expose others to what I’ve found and am trying to grasp. As I’m working through Lewis-McCoy’s careful study, I am exposing myself (again) to hard realities about White American forms of racism denial that hold us all captive. I have to wrestle with the capacity of schools as systems to perpetuate deficit thinking steeped in classism and racism. At the same time I have to expose myself to my own complicity in school systems that privilege white middle class values over more inclusive, anti-racist curricula and instruction.

That may be why this read has got me more in my feelings than I anticipated.




Resisting the doom, honoring the intent

A few things have happened recently to motivate me to try to connect the dots in my fuzzy picture publicly.  Not sure where the public part comes from but it’s there and I acknowledge it.

In the course of my reading this week I came across a variety of links which spoke to me on a deeper level.  Beyond simply agreeing with the author, I felt gratitude, relief, connection, and concern among other things.  The common thread has a lot to do with us as learners, educators, adults, parents, etc. being honest with ourselves about what education is and does; what it could and should be for our kids.

The most recent one is a post by Will Richardson,

which reminded me of what I know so well already: learning comes to those who seek it and those who get into it do so with the intent to get something out of it: answers to their questions, a link to take the interest further, a connection that puts something in perspective…

Before that I read a post on Why We Need New Ways of Talking about School by Paul Barnwell:  In a nutshell, he lists three terms which in many ways sum up the conceptual traps in which education has become mired: College and Career readiness, Achievement gap, and Data.  Read the whole post. It’s important.

This one just hit the spot and in my comment I wrote:

In this moment I can only express my sincere gratitude for the caring voices I have found here. Our children and our students deserve better than what we are generally offering them right now. They are so much more than aggregated data points and while we as individual teachers may be in a position to mitigate the harshness of many of the prevailing messages, our systems, policies and structures can make it very difficult to succeed on that account.  The conversation above gives me hope that progress is possible and that momentum for positive change is gathering.

And if that weren’t enough I went to see a movie by an Austrian filmmaker entitled: Alphabet. It is a documentary that works from Sir Ken Robinson’s premise that schooling in its traditional form is robbing children of their capacities for divergent and critical thinking, creativity and a host of other positive qualities we tend to espouse as 21st century skills. 

So much to remind me that school seems to be a thoroughly insufficient response to just about everything that matters to kids…

And yet, I work in a school. I see children day after day. I shush them in the hallways. I insist that they follow directions, rules, me… And I also listen when they tell me about the tooth they lost at lunch, and I coach them on how to make that overhand throw go even further, and I tell them how proud I am of them in the way that they learned a new game so quickly. I get to participate in their learning.  I’m more than a spectator.  I create spaces for learning to happen.  I offer opportunities for kids to discover what works and what doesn’t.  I do love teaching and I cherish my students. 

It’s easy to get carried away with the sense that all of it is wrong and going further in that direction. We’re doomed.  But we’re not. If we’re raising questions, we’re not doomed. If we’re providing the individual care that each student deserves every day, then we’re not doomed.  If we look at the system and see that it is wrong, we can correct it by taking a stand of whatever dimension and showing our kids: “We are not doomed.”

My own learning from the posts mentioned above and the comments that follow has been significantly enriched.  My connect-the-dots projects are steadily gaining in complexity as a result. 

There’s hope. I’d do well to hold onto mine. And share it.