Battling the School to Prison Pipeline: A Primer for White Educators and Parents

As a white parent of children of color, I am ashamed to admit that I have at times allowed the halo of white privilege that surrounds my children to paralyze me when it comes to their educations.

If I can do it to my own children, imagine how uninformed, albeit well-meaning, teachers who presumably do not love their students as a mother does, are compromising the educations of children of color (often unwittingly), contributing to the infamous “school to prison pipeline“.

While the focus on eradicating the “pipeline” is typically on disciplinary actions within schools, and can be traversed by children of all races, there would be no “pipeline” without the low overall expectations that educators often have for children of color.

The Center for American Progress recently released a study regarding the relationship between the performance of students and the expectations their teachers have for them. The bottom line is that the more a teacher expects, the better the students will perform academically, typically resulting in a college career. Conversely, the less teachers expect of students, the worse they will perform, reducing their chances of succeeding in college.

As you might imagine, the students who are most likely to be considered low performers are those of color and/or economically disadvantaged.*

Years ago, just after we’d brought our children home from Haiti through adoption, we met a Haitian woman whose job it was to advocate for Haitian students in the local schools. “Isn’t that a very specific job?” I inquired, naively.

She told me that there was an automatic assumption within U.S. schools that a Haitian student, whether Haitian-born or American-born and regardless of economic status, would do poorly. The schools saw Haitians as chronic underachievers. Therefore, the Haitians who were strong in academics were kept at a distance — from gifted programs, honors and AP classes. They were, the advocate told me, considered an anomaly that nobody wanted to accept. Excuses were made to explain away their intelligence: they were cheating; it was a fluke; some were even accused by teachers of being older than they said and were often asked for American birth certificates to prove their ages.

Potentially worse, the Haitian children who faced academic challenges and developmental delays were rendered their own kind of invisible. The expectations of Haitians were so low that children who needed special services were routinely denied them on the well-disguised basis that they were just living down to their perceived underachievement. They weren’t kids with special needs. They were just being Haitian.

When these situations arose, the advocate stepped in to mitigate. She saw this covert, systemic, academic racism played out everyday, not exclusively with Haitians, but with people of color from many cultures.

Students from south of the U.S. border are considered lazy, the Haitian advocate shared, so the over-achievers hang out in the closet with the anomalous gifted black children. Those with learning challenges are thought to be simply too lazy to work hard, not in need of any special services.

These students from Latin American cultures, coupled with the black students of any heritage, were disciplined more severely and more often than the white or Asian students. Zero Tolerance policies were proving to be academically debilitating for them, particularly since they were more likely to be targeted and searched than white and Asian students.

Asian students fought their own battles, though. Typically, she explained, they are stereotyped by schools as being geniuses, so that the true Asian geniuses are often considered average, and the ones who have special needs are more likely to be swept under the rug than helped. As with Haitians, but in reverse, people don’t want to see the stereotype of the brilliant Asian child turned on its head. Over a decade later, there is a current  investigation as to whether some high performing universities are discriminating against Asian American students by requiring higher standards for acceptance.

The tide of educational change is slow.

This advocate had inserted herself into the system at the request of several Haitian families. Though she wished she could work with all students of color, advocating for the Haitian students alone had become a full-time job, one that presented her with daily roadblocks to the development of her students. To compensate, she began teaching the students and their families how to bypass the system, a system that promised and failed to educate them, in order to achieve success. Often times, that meant doing the bulk of their education online, absent of social interaction, or at a local community college,

For many children of color, this system as a social construct starts on the playground when the black toddler in a sand-throwing fight is assumed the aggressor and the white one the victim. It is the toddler version of the struggles for children of color to receive fair and just discipline in school and the often fatal struggles between people of color and law enforcement (and why wouldn’t there be struggles when it all starts on the playground?).

We see it when ‘tweens and teens, often boys, are being their impulsive and puzzling boy selves and making poor decisions that cause every adult within earshot to shake their head and wonder if they had suffered a brain injury at some point. When the smoke clears, though, and the adults try and figure out what to do, the black ‘tweens and teens are shoved into the box marked  “criminal intent”, perceived as much older than they are, and therefore challenged by unrealistic expectations of behavior and maturity. Meanwhile, white adults shake their heads and laugh under their breath at the stupidity of the white kids because, as it were, the assumption is that they were just being age-appropriately stupid.

White boys will be white boys, won’t they?

The additional and perhaps most insidious problem with these perceptions of children of color is that they are often so embedded in society and so subtle that even the most seemingly enlightened and dedicated (e.g. educators, parents) might not notice their presence. In fact, we might even perpetuate these stereotypes and their damaging by-products. We wear racial cataracts as long as we remain entrenched in a racist system.

The good news about racial cataracts is that, like their physical counterpart, they can be removed.

Unlike physical cataracts, though, the protocol is painful, tedious, and demands grueling, ugly self-reflection and social analysis on the part of those willing to see things more clearly. My hope is that white educators and white parents of children of color will rise to the challenge.

We start by humanizing people of color. In order to do this, despite all the seemingly enlightened talk about becoming “colorblind”**, we must see individuals as they are, within the context of their own dominant cultures and communities, and not as clones of the perceived wider dominant culture. Think mosaic; not melting pot. Tossed salad; not soup.

Instead of forcing students to fit into a single academic and social imperative, we must broaden the system to allow for a variety of learning types, social and ethnic cultures, and academic goals.

Next, we need to erase age-related and developmental expectations for all students. This does not mean that we cannot consider averages and probabilities. As a parent and educator, I find I am more understanding when I have some ideas about what is typical. The goal is not to lower our expectations or even raise them. The problems arise when we hold different standards for different students based upon biases (racial and gender being the two most common), and when we punish students for venturing outside of our expectations (whether they are exceeding, as with the aforementioned gifted Haitian students, or failing, as with the aforementioned non-gifted Asian students, to meet them).

Instead, we need to create an environment in which students can show us where they are, who they are holistically, what they expect of themselves. When we allow for this, we can better understand the mindset with which a student engages in the educational system. If a child enters with an expectation that she will be a surgeon, for example, and because she is tall, muscular, and black, we expect her to be the school’s star basketball player, we set her up to fail herself. And we will have failed her too. Likewise, if a child enters with an expectation of mediocrity embedded in her psyche and we expect her to live down to that expectation, we will have limited her ability to expand her self-perception, possibly contributing to the “school to prison pipeline” plaguing so many children of color.

Thirdly, we must dissect our own prejudices. I put this one last because if we tried to begin here, we would never make it past this step. It is a life-long struggle for all people and one that can brutally inform how we treat and teach our children. It begins with acknowledgement and acceptance of the problem, moves into forgiveness (asking for and giving), pushes through understanding, and thrives (indefinitely) at evaluation and examination (where change happens)  — all of this leading, of course, to action.

None of this promises to be easy. Nor will we likely ever be finished. As white parents, educators, and supporters of children of color, though, we have to do the hard work. We do it to create a society where all children might start on equal footing; not necessarily at equal levels, but with the same level of respect and consideration. We do it to dissolve the “school to prison pipeline” that was put in place by oppression and is fed by injustice.

(And, in the end, for those who cannot find it within themselves to do it out of basic humanity, at least do it because each child the system fails is a potential peer to your own children, a spouse to your grandchildren, a taxpayer and voter for your future; and every system we create to oppress can eventually come back around to oppressing you.)



*I am focusing on the struggles of minorities for the purposes of this piece. I invite readers who are familiar with educating students who are economically challenged to submit their stories for publication here. These stories are vital to the conversation.

** Educators, if you take nothing at all from this post, please please read this link (That’s TWO pleases — more binding than a double-dog dare).