Dr. Rich Milner, Helen Faison Professor for Urban Education at the University of Pittsburg, issued a collective call to action Thursday afternoon when he spoke at the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Askwith Forum. Milner very directly called on educators and school systems to unabashedly confront issues of race in schools. To this end Milner put forth strong claims that educators must reposition responsibility for persistent achievement gaps, acknowledge the power of the null curriculum, and place students’ lived experience at the center of the discussion. Milner’s message was simultaneously critical, honest, and constructive as he pointed out problematic missteps while also offering suggestions for improvement.
Achievement Gaps Opportunity and Funding Gaps
Importantly, Milner repositions issues of achievement away from students and onto schools and districts saying “we do not have an achievement gap” instead we have gaps of opportunity, funding, infrastructure, discipline, support services and a host of other components that disproportionately impact black and brown students. This reminds me of Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings similar repositioning when she rejects the term achievement gap in favor of “educational debt” in her 2006 AERA presidential address. Both Milner and Ladson-Billings shift responsibility away from students (and the implication that students just don’t work hard enough) and places responsibility directly on schools, districts, and governments to address and repay our historic debt that has continually underserved our most vulnerable students citing pragmatic, economic, and moral reasons to do so.
Both authors help us understand that student achievement is consistent with inputs. When we chronically underfund and under-support groups of children we should not be surprised when they under-perform as well. Similarly, we cannot delude ourselves that we will see positive changes in achievement without significantly changing our inputs. During his talk Milner citied the example that students in Columbine still receive increased mental health services sixteen years after the shooting at Columbine High School while children in urban communities receive minimal mental health services despite repeated traumatic experience. Throughout his talk Milner maintained that we have the means and the knowledge to make changes. The will to change is lacking, however. This is an incredibly important mindset for districts to adopt. It will help us all move away from bemoaning that which is outside our control and allow us to take charge of that which is in our control.
The Null Curriculum:
When seeking to understand why race is so seldom discussed in schools, Milner cited Elliot Eisner’s concept of the “Null Curriculum” – that which is not covered by schools. By naming the null curriculum Eisner explicitly calls our attention to those topics that are (invariably) left out of both the explicit and implicit curricula. As an example, a World History course must make choices about what to cover and in doing so could demonstrate preference for European History over African History. These choices then send a message to students and parents about the relative importance of the relative histories to the school or teacher. While these choices are unavoidable, it is essential that we acknowledge the messages they send to both understand their impact, but also to check whether we are sending the messages we’d like to send.
Similarly, Milner argues, we must acknowledge how we make choices about less formal curricular decisions. Our decision whether or not to discuss Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, or Tamir Rice in class sends a direct message to our students about how we view their relative importance. If we say to our students “we can’t discuss Tamir Rice because I have to teach you how to factor polynomials” we have made a choice to subordinate Tamir Rice’s story to factoring polynomials. This is not a neutral decision and Milner argues that is critical that we be aware of the potential impact on students so we can make informed decisions.
To further illustrate his point, Milner referenced a case study from his book Rac(e)ing to Class in which a local convenience store clerk was murdered during a robbery by high school students, yet the local middle school declined to address the subject. A host of reasons were put forth citing students’ maturity, teachers’ discomfort, and the fact that the topic would not be on the test. At the end of the day however, it became clear to Milner through discussions with students that they were grieving the loss of the clerk because they’d developed a relationship through repeatedly shopping at the store. This is a prime example of the null curriculum in effect because, through omission, the school told students that their grief is not the business of school and that other topics are more important. Fortunately, Milner was able to intervene with the school staff during professional development to help them understand the impact of those curricular decisions and to establish ways to work students’ experience into their curriculum.
Students’ Lived Experience:
While using qualitative evidence of student experience to illustrate his point about the importance of acknowledging the null curriculum, Milner also made a series of important points encouraging us to continually remember to honor the individuality of student experience. We can cite all the disaggregated suspension data we want to help make our point about how suspensions disproportionately impact black and brown students. We can also cite the disproportionality in referrals for special education. We can cite how black and brown students are overwhelmingly cited for subjective disciplinary infractions like disrespect and disobedience while white and Asian students are more typically cited for objective infractions. What those data points miss, however, is the reality of students’ lived experience. According to Mills, we must pair the statistic with the story. Behind each number is an individual human being worthy of respect for the simple fact of being human.
To this same end in his book Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates challenges us all to remember the individuality of human experience when describing how his friend Prince Jones was murdered by a police officer. Coates charges his reader to:
“think of all the love poured into him. Think of the tuitions for Montessori and music lessons. Think of the gasoline expended. The treads worn carting him to football games, basketball tournaments, and Little League. Think of the time spend regulating sleepovers. Think of the surprise birthday parties, the daycare, and the reference checks on babysitters. … Think of all the embraces, all the private jokes, customs, greetings, names, dreams, all the shared knowledge and capacity of a black family injected into that vessel of flesh and bone. And think of how that vessel was taken, shattered on the concrete, and all its holy contents, all that had one into him, sent flowing back to the earth. (pp.81-82)
This is the complexity and reality of human experience that Dr. Milner asked the audience to remember when discussing issues of race and racism in schools. We need to remember that behind each statistic stand fully realized human beings. That even when we discuss how expulsion rates may not be that important because the n is low, we must remember that behind each of those expulsions is a full human being capable of reasoning and thought and deserving of dignity. When we keep the importance of the individual in mind alongside the staggering statistics we are better equipped to understand the importance and the urgency in doing the work.
Milner surprised me with his straightforward approach and it was refreshing to hear issues of race in schools being addressed in such a straightforward manner. It is no surprise that the Harvard Graduate Schools of Education selected Rac(e)ing to Class as their community read and I look forward to reading it in the near future.