Black School White School: Racism and Educational (Mis)Leadership
reviewed by Stuart Buck - October 19, 2012
Title: Black School White School: Racism and Educational (Mis)Leadership
Author(s): Jeffrey S. Brooks
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807753122, Pages: 176, Year: 2012
Search for book at Amazon.com
Jeffrey Brooks book is an in-depth ethnography of racial interactions at DuBois High School (names are fictionalized), a 1,300-student school in a medium-sized southern city. His book offers an enlightening examination of how race affects school leadership, thereby shedding light on how we should think about racial integration and accountability in urban education.
One consistent theme that emerges from the book is one that has been discussed ever since Gordon Allports seminal The Nature of Prejudice in 1954: racial integration is not a guaranteed success. Instead, absent the right preconditions, integration can often devolve into hostility and suspicion. Brooks often notes the mutual distrust between Black school leaders and White school leaders, with the two groups refusing to talk candidly whenever someone of another race was around (p. 45). Another leader said, We ought to be having a school-wide dialogue about issues of race at DuBois, but I cant raise them because Im White, and other people cant raise them because theyre Black. Thats the norm here the battle lines are drawn by race and youd better not engage the enemy (pp. 83-84). As the book makes clear, there is no easy way out here; there is only the hard work of building a community of trust and respect.
Another lesson that I take from the book is the problem of imposing school-level accountability on troubled urban schools. One reason is that students themselves bear a huge portion of the responsibility for their own academic success. But there is a further catch-22: the schools that are most in need of accountability are also the very schools whose leaders are so incompetent that they have no idea how to respond to accountability in productive ways.
Consider the importance of students cultural values. Scholars since James Coleman (with his book The Adolescent Society in 1961) have often noted that American high schoolers tend to have a disturbingly anti-intellectual attitude. DuBois High School is no exception: Brooks quotes many black school leaders who spoke of the uphill battle they constantly waged against popular culture, and who tried to get students to understand that men can be more than rappers and drug dealers and women dont need to be a hoochie mama (p. 41). One black teacher said, My mother would slap me in my mouth for coming home speaking slang the way these kids do (p. 67), while another said quite frankly that we dont really promote education a lot. . . . We promote sports, we promote other types of lifestyles instead of going to college. Black people get pissed off when a White person points that out, but I think its true (p. 68).
It is unclear how to hold schools and teachers accountable for their students academic progress, if many of those students are essentially hostile to academic work. As the cliché says, you can lead a horse to water, but you cant make it drink. Some teachers and schools could be doing the best they can under the circumstances, but there might be little academic progress even the most skillful teacher cant force knowledge and motivation into an unwilling students head.
Having made that point, let me reverse course a bit: as Brooks book makes painfully clear, DuBois High School was not doing the best it could under the circumstances. Quite the opposite. For instance, there was pervasive sexual harassment by the principal and the academic dean (pp. 107-09), and during the course of the study, two DuBois teachers were sentenced to time in jail for sexual-harassment-related charges (p. 110).
Beyond the criminal, Brooks recounts many stunning examples of incompetence; in his words, anti-intellectual leadership practices . . . occurred over and over throughout the study (p. 25). Indeed, he devotes an entire chapter to Educational Misleadership, in which he states that he witnessed basic incompetence related to not knowing school and district procedures, as well as to content knowledge and pedagogical acumen, on a weekly basis (p. 101). To take a few examples:
The school was assigned a health education magnet program, but the school and the district squabbled over hiring a competent leader for the program. The principal ended up hiring someone who resigned after a mere three months for lack of support. She was never replaced, and, in fact, her students roamed the halls during her assigned instructional hours (p. 25).
The principal created quasi-administrative positions for three teachers, who then worked only half-time with essentially no responsibility and who no longer had to teach at all; one of the three quasi-administrators had failed the administrative certification exam nine times (p. 102).
Leaders in charge of the school budget did not know basic regulations, principles, and procedures of budgeting, and ended up creating a system wherein teachers agreed that if you wanted something that required funds, you needed to speak to someone with budget authority who shared your race (p. 103).
Teachers repeatedly explained that the principal, whose teaching experience had been 2 years of physical education instruction in a middle school, had little knowledge of content or pedagogy, and actually showed little interest in the subject (p. 104).
Administrators declined to hand out National Merit Awards to two students at an assembly, because they had neglected to learn how to pronounce the students names (one was Kenyan, the other Japanese) (p. 105).
An outstanding Latin teacher was reassigned to teach remedial reading, while the Latin class was reassigned to a psychology teacher who had had one Latin course in college, creating two miserable teachers for no reason (p. 106).
The principal was infamous for having fallen asleep during one classroom observation (p. 106).
A black teacher observes what the principal did in order to satisfy a school accountability system: The principal rounded up a bunch of kids who are in the lowest level . . . . He put Voluntary Withdrawal Forms in front of each of them and told them they had to sign them. . . . It was Monday the week before we started our head count for the state test. . . . he kicked those kids on the street with no education (pp. 70-71).
On top of all this, Brooks discovered that the principal and some teachers had a chip on their shoulder about academic success. For example, even though the schools International Baccalaureate program was racially quite diverse (41% black, 40% white, and 14% Asian), the IB coordinator said that the principal and some other teachers, too, view us as a bunch of Whitey Teachers educating our Whitey Kids (p. 83). One black IB teacher was told by the black principal that he should stop teaching IB because he wasnt keeping it real by being involved in a more academically challenging program (p. 86).
This reveals the paradox of school-level accountability. Faced with a school whose leaders are unintelligent at best, and criminal at worst, what can we do? Because of their incompetence, they may respond to accountability by forcing the worst students out onto the streets, rather than by working to create a better school environment. Then again, if they had enough knowledge and competence to create a better school environment, they wouldnt need the threat of accountability sanctions in the first place. Thus, just where the threat of accountability is most needed, it is the most hopeless.
In short, Brooks book makes a compelling case (though not explicitly) that school choice is a moral imperative in some cases. Few readers of this journal would ever contemplate sending their children to a school such as Brooks describes. Students trapped in such schools who want to go elsewhere should be given every opportunity to do so.