Is it right to stereotype an entire section of the county to achieve a noteworthy end? I know we engage in this behavior all the time; however, is it right? And given that today is Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday celebration it is a question worth thinking about.
Using Head Start—clearly a proven and noteworthy program that helps the development of poor children—let’s step outside of the county for a moment to illustrate what I mean. When arguing for its continued federal financial support, supporters frequently say something along the following lines. “If you don’t invest in these poor children of color, you will end paying later when they become criminals and you send them off to prison for 20 years.” In fact, when doing Head Start research contract work at the American Institutes for Research (AIR), I even heard Head Start supporters—off the record—say more direct things such as, “If you don’t support these children now they will end robbing you when they grow and turn into anger uneducated young adults.” There are other variations on this theme; however, the basic notion here is to use a negative stereotype about a group to frighten lawmakers and others into funding Head Start.
But in life not everyone uses the negative to motivate. Let’s step back into the county.
I have lived in Bethesda for more than 25 years. My own two children went through schools in the Whitman Cluster. In my Bethesda neighborhood parents using negative stereotype to achieve noteworthy ends is probably a rare thing. Personally, when my children were Head Start age it never crossed my mind that if I did not do something for one of my children—spend that preschool tuition money—it might cause them to end up in the criminal justice system later in life. Instead, I invested in my children because it was the morally right thing to do. And the neighbors that I knew did the same. And simply doing the morally right thing was sufficient. Okay, perhaps there was the neighbor who insisted on “just” the right preschool program because it meant a step up in the queue for the right private school which then provided an advantage to the right Ivy League college. But even then there were motives driven by something negative.
So, the other day when reading one of my regular bookmarked blogs I came across this academic paper written by Stacey Childress of Harvard University. The Childress paper was presented at a January 11th Washington D.C. conference, sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. Click here to view the conference agenda:
Click here to read the Childress paper:
The Childress paper profiles several public schools districts’ spending efforts to support programs to eliminate the achievement gaps. The Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) is one district profiled in the paper. Being curious about anything MCPS, I read the paper. This quote caught my attention,
But along with the big demographic shifts, board members and community leaders were faced with the troubling reality that, along with some of the best schools in the country, Montgomery County had many schools that performed at levels similar to some of the lowest performing urban schools in America.
Hum! So, are we suppose to believe that Montgomery County has Jonathan Kozol like urban schools—those are poor dysfunctional urban schools profiled in his 1991 book Savage Inequities? Obviously, this seems to be the point here. Heck, I know this is the point here. This Harvard researcher has been working with MCPS for years now and I have read other statements similar to this one. And I know our current MCPS superintendent—Jerry Weast—likes going around the country and world saying the exact thing.
Click here to see how Childress has been researching the achievement gap in MCPS:
I guess the problem I have with all of this is I fail to understand why it is necessary to “ghettoize” parts Montgomery County. And isn’t this ghettoizing—I’m sure I made this word up—basically stereotyping at its worst? Why is necessary to make us believe that parts of Silver Spring or Gaithersburg, for example, are just as bad as parts of inner city Philadelphia or Baltimore? And then of course if you ghettoize the geography don’t you also stereotype the people in those communities? And doesn’t that stereotyping cause some harm?
Unfortunately, my professional work has taken me into some of the worst urban ghettoes in America, as well as some of the worst dysfunctional urban schools in America—Kozol-like schools. Again, anyone who has read his book Salvage Inequities knows what this means. Frankly, nothing in this county begins to remotely come close to these settings. And keep in mind that I worked as a researcher for MCPS for 18 years, and I think I stepped foot in and visited nearly every MCPS school and community. And, no Montgomery County community’s scale of issues and problems matches anything Kozol-like. Nothing in this county is Harlem-like (New York City), Roxbury-like (Boston), or Compton (Los Angeles).
But I think I get it. Two reasons come to mind for ghettoizing our neighbors. First, it helps with the messaging that centers around the need to continue funding the extra stuff for the kids that need the extra stuff. I’m not suggesting here that we should debate the need for the extra stuff. The need for extra funding is well-documented. Yet those making the case for the extra stuff still continue to frame from the negative. Regardless of the progress made on narrowing achievement gaps, we still see our colored and poor neighbors as “others” who might turn on us if we do not continue to step up to the plate. Isn’t time we stopped the stereotyping?
Second, I believe we ghettoize our colored neighbors because in a really weird way when we succeed with them it makes us look good. If you convince the public that you have kids of color that are just as worse off than those in major American cities and you succeed academically with these kids than you obviously have achieved something that most school districts and communities never achieve. You sort of earn the right to be king of the gap closing hill. You become a freaky miracle-worker. And aren’t we actually engaged in such behavior? Isn’t that the point to the recent book Leading for Equity? Well, the book serves other points and purposes, but it has been used to frame a few some of us as morally right miracle workers. Which I think is another unfortunate stereotype for our colored neighbors. Have you even noticed that when individuals achieve things with the worse of the worse—those in the ghetto—they are proclaimed miracle workers? Geoffrey Canada and his work the Harlem Children’s Zone has earned such a label—although I do not think he views himself this way. And why is it a miracle when poor children learn to read? By the way, I would encourage folks in this county to read the recent book Whatever It Takes by Paul Tough. Great book. Even though it is clear from test score data that the Children’s Zone has a long ways to go.
Click here to view test score data:
But all of this still brings me back to my original question, is it okay to stereotype to achieve a noteworthy end? And further, is anyone harmed when we engage in this behavior? And is there a point in time, when we no longer must stereotype to do the right thing by all children—regardless of their skin color? I hope so, and I hope it is soon because I’m sort of sick of reading and hearing about how ghetto certain parts of Montgomery County are.