Staring At the Discipline Gap: What is the right Option?

The option for the oppressed, as is true of all options, cannot be qualified. It can be changed, but once this happens it is not any longer an option for the oppressed. To claim to have a preferential option is a way of rejecting the demands of what it really means to opt for the oppressed and impoverished. ~ Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz

As an educator, I have almost exclusively worked in urban schools with low-income families and students of color. One complicated factor obstructing their flourishing is the institution designed to help emancipate them: education. The systemic biases that have contributed to the achievement gap have been documented for decades and extend beyond the education system.[1] Research has broadened to recognize that the social curriculum of schools also impacts the development of self and social consciousness. What is now called the “school to prison pipeline” reveals the disproportionate exclusionary interventions of students of color compared to their white classmates. This curriculum teaches students of color (young black men especially) they are a problem. Further, this message and exclusion from educational opportunities results in higher rates of incarceration.[2] While the education system is not the sole proprietor of racism, it does not negate education’s responsibility for its perpetuation and it’s potential for resistance. Education is both a Foucaldian apparatus of power and a Freirian catalyst for emancipation.

Freire suggests that educators must develop in themselves and their students a critical consciousness of power in the dominant discourse.[3] But perception is not enough. Schools themselves must move through stages of awareness, concern and action to correct these systemic injustices.[4] Freire also defends the right of teachers to teach, and learners to learn, the dominant culture.[5] Similarly, I recognize the importance that teachers teach, and learners learn, the dominant culture with the honest disclosure to marginalized students that their learning is for a slightly different reason: That by learning the dominant language and terms, they themselves (not their oppressors) can better advocate against injustice.[6] They are being prepared to succeed in two different cultures. 

As the Isasi-Diaz quote argues, in light of Catholic teachings the very meaning of fairness in social interventions must ‘privilege the most vulnerable.’[7] Fairness must be partial.[8] I wonder how this critical analysis should look in schools where educators are also charged with preparing the most vulnerable. Attempts can look like: 1.) Lowering the bar and 2.) “Loving students off cliffs.” But does ‘opting’ for students of color in this manner poorly equip them for the reality of prejudice they will face after graduation? Or would ‘opting’ require ‘unfair’ treatment of young African-American men, for example, who often have to work harder than their counterparts to overcome oppressive structures? I have heard from some Black parents that teachers should not go easy on their sons. The stakes are just too high.

[1] Joseph Murphy, The Educators Handbook For Understanding and Closing Achievement Gaps, (Corwin Press, 2013). Chubb, John E., and Tom Loveless Bridging the achievement gap, (Washington, DC : Brookings Institution Press, 2002)

[2] Jessica Swain-Bradway, Sheldon Loman and Claudia Vincent, “Systematically Addressing Discipline Disproportionality Through the Application of a School-Wide Framework,” Multiple Voices for Ethnically Diverse Exceptional Learners, 14,1, (2014), 3–17

[3] Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, (New York: Bloomsbury, 2012) 35.

[4] James B. McGinnis, “Educating For Peace and Justice,” Religious Education 81, no.3: (1986)

[5] Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 45-53

[6] Ibid, 65,74,83

[7] Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, “Mujerista Discourse: A Platform for Latinas’ Subjugated Knowledge,” Decolonizing Epistemologies: Latina/o Theology and Philosophy (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012), 63.

[8] Ibid, 62.


Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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