Racism and Children Failing in School

By Linda E. Edwards
January 11, 2007

School ChildrenThe Socialist Worker, in an article titled “Schools Report Shows Young People’s Lives Are Blighted by Racism” reprinted by Trinicenter.com, reports that many young people’s school lives are devoid of hope due to racism and poverty. The report, which was first published on December 16, 2006, applies to Britain and British schools. Trinidad and Tobago’s education personnel should not pass up the opportunity to read the article and learn from it.

Take off the country and town names, and the report could have been issued about Trinidad and Tobago, the USA or any country where non-white children are educated using European value systems and European teachers, or teachers who are European by osmosis, having never or hardly been to Europe, but who have adopted the value systems of English schools. The statistics are scary. The Non-white (whom the report calls Black) students stand only a fifth of a chance of being identified as “Gifted and Talented”. Each year, 1000 Black pupils are excluded from schools, (Told to go home and not come back, maybe? And their parents are unaware of an appeals procedure?) and 30,000 are temporarily excluded (-suspended at home) for varying periods of time.

Startling data, but not surprising data, includes the results of blind exam marking compared to marking the papers of students whose identities are known. When the teachers know whose paper is being marked, the Black student does not fare as well. Its all about expectations of success, predictions of failure

Nothing about this surprised me. The Cambridge Overseas Certificate Exams were marked blind, and this gave opportunities to young students, non-white students- from all over the Commonwealth. Major American school (PSAT, SAT, AP. GRE, LSAT) exams are marked blind, and a few Black kids (African, Hispanic and Asian) get in to MIT and Harvard based on test scores alone. The SEA exams are marked blind, and all sorts of students soar to excellence, receiving perfect scores here, there and everywhere. It is in the classroom where the teacher is not blind to who is doing what that “death at an early age” occurs. This death, is the death of low expectations, based on racism, economic prejudice, and differing value systems.

When a child goes to school for the first time, he or she is invariably eager to be there. School is a great adventure. Within a few years that great adventure can become a drag. The child does not want to go, gets into trouble, “will not learn” or is branded “difficult” or “Special ed”.

What is happening here? One or more of these things: The child is packed into an overcrowded classroom, with too few supplies. The child (especially boys) is expected to stay in his seat for long periods, when getting up and walking about is the natural thing for children to do. This walking about, spoils the “quiet atmosphere” of learning that schools seem to expect. He is designated as a child who “bothers other children”, “talks out of turn”, “is a difficult learner” and is headed for the write-off that usually happens to little non-white and poor white boys; that fills up the prisons all over the world. Sometimes, he talks to other children instead of paying attention.

If the teacher gets tired of trying to change his errant ways, she or he may attack the child based on his parentage, ethnicity, economic standing or other variable that contributes to learning. The next stage would be to castigate all children of the group into which the errant child falls, as if they were him, and to create a mental template of what a learner is and what a disruptive child is. This is the beginning of confinement into the prison of low expectations, from which he may never escape. The disruptive children are presumed not to want to learn for the following reasons:

“His no-good father is in jail, so what do you expect?”

“His mother has children for about five different men, next year; we’ll get another just like him.”

“His big brother was killed in a gang fight, since then , he’s acting strange.”

“I do not know what is going on in that house, and frankly, I don’t want to know.”

“I am not his social worker.”

“His mother is on drugs (could also be big brother, big sister or father).”

“His drunken father beats up the whole family. What do you expect?”

(Gleaned from faculty conversations over a forty-five year period, in many parts of the world.)

All of these ought to be rescue imperatives- reasons to ensure that the child gets enough education to help him improve his life chances, but instead, they are often given as reasons why a child cannot learn. In fact, they are reasons prejudicial to the child, in which the teacher stands in judgment on the child and his “low class” or wrong ethnic group family, and consigns him to academic death at an early age.

Education as it is practiced in schools in Trinidad and Tobago, the USA and the UK, is a middle-class concept. All teachers want their pupils to be doctors, lawyers and engineers, computer specialists and designers, and the occasional movie star or sports-person. Some of their pupils will become teachers. Heaven help them if they use the model some of them see in front of them. Some teachers, in poor, urban and rural areas adopt the “I am only working here” attitude, and believe that the children will amount to nothing much, because of their circumstances. Some are just working until something better turns up, and let the children know this. The self-fulfilling prophecy causes the child to amount to not much. But what if they thought their children were destined to be the brightest stars in the firmament, and acted as if they were? What if they let them know this instead? What if they infused their classes with a sense of joy? What if the kids were allowed to walk about, when it was not recess? Startlingly good results could come from this kind of seeding.

All schools expect the parents to take an active interest in the academic life of the child, but is this realistic? Can a mother who is a maid, take time off, ride the bus, sometimes two busses, across town to sit in on her child’s math class? Would she get paid by her employer if she did? That parent may love her child no less, but must make the economic decision not to come to ‘Math Night’ or report card day, because doing so will cut into the pittance that she earns, and her child may get less to eat as a result. Some parents will not come, because schools have always made them feel insecure. They did not do well in school, and schools found fault with them, when their parents came many years ago, so now, they are reluctant to go to school. It brings back bad memories.

School visits can become a joy for children and parent, if the child is allowed to choose some of the work the parent sees, and to delete some not so good pieces; if the child is allowed to clean up his work station, rather than the teacher saving the mess he made to show his parent. School visits can be a joy if children are encouraged to believe that this is an adventure we are on together; You, Me and Mom. If it’s Mom and Dad, it’s usually better, but nearly 50% of today’s parents in the west, are single parents. Teachers must be conscious not to imply that single parent homes are somehow “broken”.

School can be fun if children are allowed inputs into what they learn. Sure there is a curriculum, a broad guideline that teachers follow, but there is an “extension” part of that curriculum, where an interested teacher, collaborating with students, can create a lot of new ways to do things.

I recently taught my students various African rhythms that can be drummed on their desks. Children like to make noise. Why not let them learn controlled noise? We drum from time to time, for no reason at all, except that they like it, it breaks the routine, and it is noisy. They will work quickly if they can get to drum on the desks before we close. I develop memory and concentration by singing rounds where three parts of the class are singing different parts at the same time. We play the African game “Yan Kaloba”(www.universalhighways.com), which teaches teamwork, concentration and leadership, but is noisy, and we write. We write. We write.

I read a lot to them, items downloaded from the world’s newspapers; that would have relevance to 13 year olds. I find material important to their immigrant background- they are all Latin Americans, and we discuss controversial issues of politics, that give them things to write about. We listen to music, so as to decide what music would we use if we were writing this incident into a movie.

At Christmas, we designed Christmas trees that included a crescent moon and star, Divali arches with lit deyas, a menorah and a canaria (Kwanzaa candle-holder) as decorations, and called it the Christmas tree of the future. (We did this long before the Rabbi in Seattle threatened a lawsuit because the holiday decorations excluded his religion.) We planned parties (as essays) that included awareness of everyone’s food restrictions. These children will, hopefully, bring more sensitivity to the workplace of the future.

Teachers who want their children to be successful have to invest in them, invest in hope, love and better plans for their future. When my American friend, Ms. Wiley, met the children in the programme at Russell Latapy school, her first comment was, “What lovely children,” she smiled at them, and worked with love. They smiled back. These are Laventille children.

Long ago, E. R. Braithwaite highlighted the problems of urban British schools in, “To Sir With Love.” A number of similar books have shown the problems of American urban schools, Blackboard Jungle being perhaps the worst. Movies too, “Stand And Deliver,” “Boston Public” and others. Some of them have portrayed the worst aspects of school, and students sometimes try to live up to what they see on the tube. What these books and movies do not spend enough time on, is the attitude of teachers who assume that children from backgrounds different from theirs are unable to learn, so why make the effort? They show the lone example of the enthusiastic young teacher who goes all out. He burns out, and things stay pretty much the same. He is replaced by another; who meets the same fate.

Yet, educators believe that every child can learn. Every child cannot master quantum physics, many will fail science because they cannot or will not dissect a frog. This does not mean they are failures in school, but that they need alternative routes to be successful. They should be given another opportunity, another alternative, to show what they can do.

Our liberation route to nationhood, as Trinidad and Tobago, and in fact most of the English speaking Caribbean and Africa, came through politicians who were doctors and teachers, and some were lawyers. We have clung to those models of success for too long. We need to expand what it means to be successful in school- in the arts, in social sciences- including learning to live in harmony with those that are different, in our tolerance of multiculturalism, and in our developing a sense of ethics that will guide responsible adult behaviour. The models of success still practiced in schools may be too narrow to encompass all of the world’s children. We assign failure to too many who may be an Einstein, a Mae Jemison, a Peter Minshall or a Leroy Clarke – a talented learner who is differently abled, who does not fit the mold.

We must continually look at what it means to be successful in school, and ask if our children are experiencing it.

11 thoughts on “Racism and Children Failing in School”

  1. If only we had more teachers like Linda.

    Please keep doing what your doing because, your doing it right.

    Finchley London, UK

  2. I will settle for advising others, Ulric. Thanks. I have had my principal days in The USA. I can train them though. The question is, what incentive is there in being retrained to do things differently?
    If you give people cold storage training, and not a motivated energized staff, the training becomes a “nice to know” idea. If people get promoted to higher salary levels for what may well be non-performance, why should they perform? If training is put in place, but implementation of the training is left to the individual to “try it if you want”, nothing happens.People remain comfortable where they are.

    The system needs revamping.

  3. Oh’ what revelation,today my 22year old daughter is in law school and her younger brother will follow thanks to a Parent who refused to become prey to this very system in Canada believe me, this system is so suttle and disguised we need a lot of education,understanding and the insight to detect this incidious prey and attack it in the budding stage.thank you.

  4. Oh my gosh!!!

    I am a teacher working in the British system. Only today we had a ‘gifted and talented’ Literacy day. There are 25 children in my class and eight attended the G&T day. Of these eight children; 1 is black African, three are black Caribbean, one Bulgarian and three white British.Your claims that black children are never considered ‘gifted and talented’ are utter nonsense. I refute in every context the claims made in your article. I have children in my class, both black and white, with parents who have spent time in prison, their academic success has little to do with the colour of their skin and everything to do with the stimulation they have received throughout their lives.
    Educational research throughout the World proves that a child who does not have their basics need met will not be in a position to concentrate on learning, this is the same for all children regardless of the colour of their skin. The suggestion that British teachers mark children’s work according to the colour of their skin is outrageous! All teachers do NOT want their pupils to become doctors etc. Most teachers want to improve their pupil’s life chances and have a positive impact on their lives.
    It is quite possible that there are elements of racism within the British education sysytem but those suggested by you are as outdated as the 1970’s TV programme ‘To sir with love’ referred to in this article!!!

  5. The article I wrote was a comment on one published in a UK paper, that provided the evidence, and it was so cited. It too, was carried by trinicenter.com. The original was in the Socialist. You should check it. My point was that not only in the UK was this a problem, but also in all ountries that have been slave societies, but I did not say it that way. I pointed out that it was true in the US and Trinidad and Tobago also, where the Expectations of The Teacher affect the progress of the pupils. There have been enough blind studies documenting that this is true. So, instead of castigating me, who backs what I say with more than forty years of teaching experience, from Kindergarten to College, as well as having read the research; you should look at the wider pattern in British schools to show the truth.
    The original article pointed out that when the tests are administered blind, like the Cambridge School Certificate used to be, all kinds of students excelled, because colour of skin was not a problem, as did the Socialist article, but when the teacher faces the class daily, and sees behaviour and skin colour, other factors that contribute to fasilure get into the picture. I should not have to be summing this up for you a second time, but it seems necessary. Please do your own research. Then write to the Socialist, pointing out that they are dead wrong, and I am sure they will print it, and so would Trinicenter.com. The Racism Watch colums are ever vigilant.
    Now, if you had a basic course in logic, you would know that proof by selected instances is faulty logic.

  6. Linda, your response to Cheryl seemed very personal and statements such as

    – “Now, if you had a basic course in logic, you would know that proof by selected instances is faulty logic.”,

    – “I should not have to be summing this up for you a second time, but it seems necessary.”

    These statements do not help to prove your basic argument that racism is the major factor in former slave colonies which inhibit the progress of black kids.

    Have you considered in your logical world that Caribbean governments might be largely to blame for the malaise in the education system?

    Firstly, most of the Caribbean islands have been in charge of their affairs for well over 40 years and their governments are best placed to eradicate racism and poverty.

    In Trinidad and Tobago, while a lot of schools were built in the late 1970s and 1980s through the oil wealth not enough emphasis was placed on ensuring that the education system was accountable. For example even today, one can find Trinidad teachers charging fees for lessons to primary school kids, some even using the public schools in this unacceptable practice. Obviously parents who cannot afford these fees would find their kids at a disadvantage and teachers less likely to teach during their normal and contracted hours.

    Another factor in the Caribbean, especially in Jamaica, Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago is what is known as the ‘barrel syndrome’ where due to the economic hardships, mothers and fathers went to the US to seek jobs while leaving their kids in the charge of grandparents and friends. The main contact of these parents with kids was then the periodic sending of barrels of goods for their children. Most Trinidadians are familiar with this practice and sociologists have highlighted this fact in explaining some of the problems of crime in the Caribbean. In Trinidad and Tobago this problem is largely attributable to economic mismanagement of the oil wealth in the 1970s.

    It is hardly surprising that Caribbean countries such as Trinidad and Tobago with a relatively high per capita income continue to underperform when compared to countries such as Singapore (or even Barbados). Remember these countries all started off at the same point in the 1950s and 1960s as newly independent states.

    Also, your comments do not highlight the problem of underachieving boys in most of the Caribbean. This phenomenon is even evident at the tertiary level – go listen the Chancellor of the University of the West Indies read out the grim statistics each year for faculties such as engineering where females are now in the majority. No prize for guessing where the boys end up.

    Other problems facing the Caribbean include crime and poverty including homelessness as witness by the dramatic rise in the number of street children in Trinidad. There is also the problem of the recent trend of teachers leaving the Caribbean shores for the US and the UK.

    While no one can deny that racism exists in the Caribbean, it is down to governments to provide the infrastructure necessary to improve the life chances of those most disadvantaged and likely to be left behind.

    And by the way, the above is wrirten from more than 26 years living in Trinidad and Guyana, 10 years in the UK and as an economist.

  7. Yes Carlos. You are right in that my response to her was personal. I cited my source for the original article, which was carried through trinicenter.com. She disputed the findings based on her teaching in one British school. Track back to the original article, then follow my comments from that. I do not have much patience with people who advance notions about Caribbean governments etc, because I see the same things happening in other countries. Proof by selected instance is faulty logic. If a person choses to comment on something I write, that is their right. It is my right to respond to what they say, and restate what I say as succintly as I said it before. May I re-invite her, throgh you,and you also, to go read the original article published in The Socialist? It seemed to have found a chord with readers in Britain, the Caribbean and Canada. Only you and she objected. The vote is against you, my friend.

  8. Linda, you are surprisingly misinformed. Most commentators recognise good governance as one of the main drivers for improving the welfare of societies and is what many have been screaming at governments about in Trinidad and Tobago (TT), Jamaica and Guyana to name a few.

    Take for example the current issue in Trinidad at the moment. The present government intends to spend a whopping US$6 billion to implement a rapid rail system which, were it not so serious, would be laughed at in Europe where there are far larger populations and geographic sizes to make this financially viable. When questioned the TT government’s answer to critics is highly dismissive. Yet, simple solutions such as flexi time, restricting building applications, moving major employers out of the capital and other major towns have not even been considered. On the other hand it is a common sight to see young kids travelling long distances to get to school. The solutions would cost only a fraction of that proposed for the rail system which was scrapped in 1969. Should this not be spent on poverty reduction programmes and education?

    Or for example, it is mind boggling to understand why governments in the Caribbean continue to give foreign scholarships to its achieving citizens while also paying for the upkeep of the University of the West Indies (UWI). And what about the fiasco surrounding recently established University of Trinidad and Tobago which, given a population of 1.3m, is not financially viable as a second university? Graduates have now found, at their expense, that their degrees are worthless. No one has yet resigned for this cock up – I do remember a few years the former Education Secretary Estelle Morris resigning from the Blair cabinet for the incorrect marking of A level papers when most agreed that it was not nearly her fault. Are you suggesting that this is acceptable and that Caribbean governments are not culpable?

    Small wonder that when compared to Barbados, Scandinavian countries, and other parts of Europe, many countries in the Caribbean more often than not underperform.

    And I can cite numerous examples across the Caribbean where profligate government spending is usually the culprit and when the hard decisions have to be made it is usually at the expense of soft targets such as expenditure in education. And this is not proof by selection but that made out of reading governments reports, UWI studies, UN, IMF and World Bank reports etc.

    Before commenting on Caribbean issues I suggest you read (daily) the Trinidad Express, especially articles by Professors Selwyn Ryan and John Spence. I also suggest you broaden your research to avoid your rather narrow perspective.

    Finally, my reason for responding is to highlight other causes for the problems you highlighted. And as for votes, in this case I prefer to be in the minority!

  9. An article published in a paper read all over the world,(The Socialist) has led to your defense of the young lady validating her positions in one British school, and back to your attacking Caribbean Governments. It is as if I said, that because I have never been a victim of racism, or overt sexism, or age discrimination, these things do not exist. That would be a series of fallacious statements. Go ahead and attack all the governments you want. I wonder though, how long either of your avatars,Selwyn Ryan or John Spense would survive teaching in a school- a junior sec. for example, in any part of Trinidad, or in an inner city school in New York or London. We have theorists a plenty in the Caribbean, apologists and “attack dogs” too.I have no more to say on this issue. There comes a time when, in the disrespectful opinion of this senior citizen, further talk is a waste of time. We have reached that point here. There is racism in schools in the countries mentioned in my original piece, and that accounts for many children failing in schools.

  10. Unfortunately discrimination also exists in the so-called prestige high schools. In the 1990’s I went to an all girls’ school on Pembroke Street and I felt a clear sense of discrimination from my Art teacher from for 1 to form 5. She seemed to have higher expectations of the girls who were white and graded them well, even when some of their work was disastrous! I am a mixture of many races, so I’m basically brown-skinned, but this teacher couldn’t ignore me more. She would ignore the other non-white girls and would spend much of the class chatting with the white girls about their plans for the weekend. I managed to do well at CXC level Art, in spite of the odds, but for A’levels, I was faced with a different dilemma. Though not as overt as our white-loving former teacher, our new black-loving teacher made me feel almost as excluded. She ignored the white girls, and would talk to me a little, but not as much as she would talk to the only black girl in our class. She was incredibly talented, but that surely didn’t warrant this lady to ignore me and the other girls, 2 of whom were white, another of Chinese ancestry. So I supposed that this occurs on both sides of the fence.
    My primary school experience was not as bad…one major problem was class division, I remember one boy who, when asked to give thanks to God for something, said “Thanks God for my father’s Mercedes”…There was a bit of insecurity among some of the girls who has curly hair and they would often compare whose curls were nicer and “less kinky”, which I thought was odd at that the, and I still do. Religious tolerance was something that did not exist, and I am happy that more attention is being paid to that area! I just really hope that things continue to change!

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