Since 2004, Oakland Unified School District has closed 16 schools and is now targeting an additional 24 by the start of the 2019-20 school year. District officials call it "right-sizing," a term borrowed from corporate America - appropriate given that many of the shuttered schools will be converted into for-profit charters. While policymakers see failing or "bad" schools, parents, students and educators see pillars of the community that have not been adequately funded and are worth fighting for.
Closing down his school, one Oakland seventh grader testified in January, "is like putting me up for adoption ..[My school] made me who I am.”
These are scenes that have been playing out in urban school districts across the country. In 2013, Chicago announced it was closing 50 schools, 90 percent of which served all-black student populations. The plan triggered massive protests from parents, educators, students and community members. The mobilization to save their neighborhood schools is recounted in “Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side," by Eve L. Ewing.
In the book, Ewing, who in addition to being an assistant professor at the University of Chicago is also a poet and podcaster, vividly describes the anger, destabilization and sense of displacement felt by the families impacted most by school closings.
These are the voices that need to be heard as policymakers make decisions that put children's lives on the line, Ewing says. And, as she recently told NEA Today, no amount of bureaucratic jargon and cherry-picked data can conceal the racist underpinnings behind the top-down, punitive policies that have dominated the education agenda over the past two decades.
"Ghosts in the Schoolyard" should be read by any official who actually makes these sort of decisions, but what other audiences do you most want to reach? Did you happen to see the teacher in Boston publicly handing out copies of your book to members of the School Committee who were considering closing the school where she works? That must have been gratifying.
Eve Ewing: Yes, I did see that story. The photo of the teacher holding the book up was profoundly moving. So certainly I'm interested in lawmakers reading the book, but I also wanted to reach the people who have been closely impacted by these decisions to close schools - the parents, teachers, community members. Many have told me that the find the book to be validating. It makes them feel like they didn't dream this up, you know? It's really unfortunate that the world we live in makes people feel that those sort of experiences are not being legitimated. I hope the book can be a lesson for researchers to take people at their word about how they are so deeply affected.
Another audience is young people. I want them to understand the history and context of the social system in which they find themselves, but also the history and context of struggle and how the people who came before them have worked really hard to try to make a better world.
You taught in Chicago public schools. How did that experience shape the way you approached the book and your work in general?
Ewing: With all the research I do, whether it's about school closings or anything else, I'm always trying to think about how people on the ground who are actually living with the consequences of how things actually play out.
Every public school teacher has had the eye-rolling experience of being handed something to try in your classroom where you are like, "Ok, this is not going to work." Had anyone talked to me or had any respect for me, I could have told them that, but no one ever asked. So I don't want to be that researcher. I try really hard to think closely, and to ask people about their actual lived experiences, rather than assuming my own expertise.
I also worked as an aide in a couple of other schools on the South Side. All of them were 100% black and low-income, but I saw real differences in how the teachers approached the students. I saw teachers who were punitive and, frankly, cruel, and teachers who were what we call in the literature "warm demanders" - very loving, very caring, but also had high expectations. So I saw how the tone, tenor and climate of the schools - and how what the students were able to do - changes when someone treats them like human beings.
Reading about the sense of loss felt by students, parents and educators was difficult. This was a traumatizing experience for them. Were you prepared for that when you interviewed them and listened to their testimony?
Ewing: I think I was intellectually prepared but I don't think there's any way to be emotionally prepared. Because some of these experiences were mirrored in my own life, I sort of knew what to expect. But I spent lot of time listening to recordings of children crying. On a very visceral level, that's very difficult, but it's important for me to have that perspective.
Yeah, people tell me all the time that reading the book was upsetting. But that affective reality, that sort of emotional reality, should be part of the calculus when we make these decisions that impact the lives of children so deeply. So no, while the trauma experienced by these families wasn't surprising to me, it might be surprising to the people who were the engineers of this policy.
The avoidance to talk about the role of race in any of these decisions is pretty strong, right?
Ewing: People are comfortable talking about race when they are talking about how some racial groups are not performing up to par, when it's through the lens of talking about deficits that are perceived in students of color, particularly black students.
It would be a different if we pushed ourselves to talk about race and education policy in terms of the way that current policies reinscribe and reinforce racial inequalities, and the way the education system interacts with other stratified systems in our society to ensure that students don't have the same resources or opportunities based on race.
There's a difference between talking about race and talking about racism. Scholars before me have established that that sort of deflection can in many ways be a racist tactic. The idea that it's not racism, it's this other thing, has been a very effective way of silencing any sort of critique.
As you say in the book, racism can be just as much, if not more, about the outcome as opposed to the intent. To what extent has it saturated our recent education policies?
Ewing: To me, these questions are entirely about race. What underlies all these supposed reforms has so much to do with how much we control black people, how we control black children, how we assimilate immigrant groups, how we commit cultural genocide against native people. All of these in their way are the underlying projects of school reform.
So much goes uninterrogated about how and why our schools look the way they do. Why, for example, are people are so attracted to curriculum reforms that supposedly elevate test scores and graduation rates to astronomical levels simply by ensuring that children live under an intense disciplinary regime - one that minimizes their capacity for free expression and maximizes the degree to which their bodies are under control?
These are the costs that people are willing to pay for the supposed dividends of test scores, right? And even a lot of policymakers who identify themselves on the left and who are white still advocate for policies for children of color that they would never dream of implementing if their own children were in the classroom.
More room has been made recently for a serious discussion about funding inequality in our education system. How far can that conversation go without talking about race?
Ewing: It's a start, but it depends on how much we want to scratch below the surface. If we want to talk about funding inequality, we have to talk about property taxes. If we want to talk about property taxes we have to talk about residential segregation. We have to start talking about wealth inequality, right? We have to start talking about the transference of wealth. We have to talk about opportunity hoarding.
I often bring up about the analogy about the sneeze and the cold. One is the symptom and one is the actual virus. At some point you have to talk about the virus if you're sitting around sneezing all the time. What is it that is actually making us sick?
Are you optimistic about the heightened awareness of how many of these policies are affecting students? There's been quite a bit of progress on some fronts, including charter schools and overtesting.
Ewing: Well, I'm not really sure we're seeing all that much progress yet. I do think we're seeing rhetorical progress and that is a really important first step. And I do think that people across racial groups are beginning to see the brunt of some of these policies. So that's a real potential for solidarity.
But I don't know that the heightened awareness has been matched by the policy environment. Under Betsy DeVos, I think we've been regressing on quite a few areas, just thinking about vouchers for example. But there is a potential of something powerful happening there, for sure.
You've said that people shouldn't conflate "schooling" and "education." Schooling is one of those institutional practices that, as you said earlier, emphasizes control and standardization, whereas education is genuine discovery and learning. To what extent are competing visions or ideas about the role of public education getting in the way of transformative change?
Ewing: We live in a hyper-individualist society. So when many people think about schools, they see them as an engine to attain the most material gain that they possibly can for their individual child. And I think that's fine. It's a natural human impulse, especially for parents.
But we should expect policymakers to have a different lens. They have to think about how we build systems that work for all students, that are not based on principles of competition, but instead on principles of resource provision. So how are we meeting our ethical and moral obligation to provide all children regardless of their social position with adequate resources?
But I think a deeply-rooted anti-blackness undercuts that. A lot of research bears this out. When people are choosing schools, when people are assessing what a good school is and what bad school is, when they are thinking about what kind of curriculum they want to implement in schools - if the children being served are black, the game changes from one of thinking about nurturing and resource provision to one of punishment and control.
People see blackness as a proxy for low-quality and the presence of black children as a proxy for badness. So that and hyper-individualism are two mindsets that have to change, but policymakers and politicians have to take a lead on that. We can't sit around and wait for people to suddenly be better people in order for our school systems to be better. We have to demand courage and innovation to create the policies that are going to create conditions of equity. And then everybody else has to catch up or not.