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Push Out: Racial Dynamics at a Turnaround School

By Christopher B. Knaus

Home > Archives > Volume 31 No.2 - Winter 2016-17

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Damon Locks

Is everything with you going to be about racism?” Principal Wickle demanded in frustration. “You continually stress race when it’s clearly just not good teaching.”

We were meeting to debrief my observations and coaching support for a classroom teacher. Wickle was perched behind his gray metallic desk, a barrier that loomed over the too-short chair visitors to his office were forced to crunch into. He used language to claim power: “my teachers,” “my school,” “my vision,” and “I’m the principal.”

As a professor of educational leadership, I am often invited into such awkward relationships. A principal, typically relatively new to the position, reaches out to ask for guidance and support in an under-resourced school. Once I arrive, the principal sets a negative tone about a teacher (or set of teachers) and asks if I can provide coaching or a prescriptive professional development workshop to address what he (almost always he) frames as a teacher deficit.

My experience with these principals, particularly the young white men who often lead turnaround schools, reflects a larger context of racist and sexist treatment of teachers. Despite national calls for efforts to diversify the teacher workforce, the current educational reform efforts—embodied by turnaround schools—push out teachers of color. This is in addition to a larger political infrastructure of anti-teacher education reform, implemented largely by young white principals with limited instructional leadership experience and a dangerous commitment to “effectiveness.”

From the perspective of these reformers and the corporate funders whose policies they carry out, culturally responsive, experienced teachers are a problem. Divergent opinions slow the transformative effort and require democratic conversation about different teaching approaches, ultimately calling into question what effectiveness means. School principals hired to turn around schools are well aware of their task: to bring about an alignment of data-driven instruction that can be implemented regardless of local context and culture. This requires, as a first step, removing older, established educators, who often know much more about teaching and the community in which their students live.

The pushing out of experienced teachers of color exacerbates the disarray of public schools in low-income neighborhoods, which then requires, the colonial story goes, outside leadership to save poor Black and Brown children from their ineffective teachers. This is happening in urban schools in Oakland, New Orleans, Chicago, and Seattle, but also in rural areas in Hawaii, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi. Cities that have gone through the most “transformation,” reinforced by Teach For America, New Leaders for New Schools, and charter corporations like KIPP, continue to replace long-term teachers with a whiter, more temporary teacher workforce. This is a well-documented national phenomenon (see References).

As an example, here is the true story of one principal and one teacher that illuminates what this process can look like. It’s also the reason why I no longer accept these assignments.

Teacher “Improvement”

Mrs. Sayed was a Black woman in her late 30s. She had taught in California Bay Area schools for 15 years. Before that, she attended community college in the area and then the local four-year college. Principal Wickle was in his late 20s, only slightly older than the majority of the teachers at the school. He had attended elite private schools and universities, then taught in Baltimore for three years before becoming a principal. During his first year as principal in Baltimore, Wickle was hired by a national charter management organization (CMO), assigned to facilitate Mrs. Sayed’s school’s turnaround process, and named its principal for the following year. He was new to the area and the community.

The school was reconstituted and then reopened by the CMO. Only a handful of the teachers had remained at the reconstituted school, and most of them had been teaching for fewer than two years. As a compromise with the remaining teachers, the founding school leader agreed to implement a process to support teachers threatened with removal. The Teacher Improvement Process (TIP) was agreed to by the union negotiation team, the district, and the CMO’s bargaining team. In addition to a teacher participating in required professional development workshops, the TIP required the appointment of an outside instructional coach. As a result, Wickle asked me to work with Mrs. Sayed for the year.

The school was in California, but it could have been in New Orleans, Chicago, D.C., or Houston, as the CMO’s framework had been used for similar takeover schools in those cities and beyond. The school, situated in a low-income urban community, reflected the neighborhood demographics: 60 percent African American, 25 percent Latina/o, 10 percent Asian, and 5 percent Pacific Islander. The teaching staff, however, did not: 70 percent of the teachers were white, 20 percent were African American, and the rest were Latina/o or Asian. The leadership team, including the principal, teacher leaders, and department heads, were all white. And I, a white male academic, was asked to support Mrs. Sayed, one of the few teachers of color, in the first year of the new school.

What I did not realize when I entered the situation was that the outcome had already been determined.

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