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My Acting Debut


Institutionalized discrimination. What is it?

“If a particular group is disproportionately absent in comparison to the pool of those possessing the relevant skills, discrimination is occurring even if it is impossible to document specific individual instances.” – Jo Freeman

Have you noticed that minority students are disproportionately absent from high school graduations across this country? It is a fact that Black and Hispanic youth are more likely than non-Hispanic whites to drop out of high school. In 2004, 12 percent of blacks and 24 percent of Hispanics ages 16 to 24 had not graduated from high school, compared with 7 percent of non-Hispanic whites.

This leads me to the question, are certain high schools with low minority graduation rates limiting social and economic opportunities for those who attend these schools? I think so. We face numerous problems as we commit ourselves to challenging the exclusion of many Americans from full participation in our society, and one major problem is public education.

Today at El Valor, I did something I’ve never done before… I “acted” in a commercial! (I played the part of a science teacher and steamed up a pair of goggles.) It is a commercial to be aired on TV meant to show parents that they have options when it comes to high schools for their children. Options like private schools that offer financial assistance, charter schools and magnet schools. Going to high school is a life changing experience, where a child becomes a young adult. The quality of the high school helps determine if and where a student goes to college. The student’s peer group in high school plays a huge part in his or her academic success. And this is what parents want for their children: academic success.

Across this country, the academic institutions called high schools that many of us remember so fondly (though hopefully NOT as the best years of our lives) are not the safe halls of academia we might recall. I once worked in a school where I saw the police paddy wagon parked nearly everyday after school, waiting to arrest students who were known participants in criminal behavior, mostly drugs and gang violence. Is this where you’d want your child to go to high school? It certainly offered little in the ways of academic success.

The inequality of education in this country is unacceptable. The challenges we face today in many public schools include the lingering effects of racism and poverty. Until we face these challenges, they will perpetuate institutionalized discrimination as proven in the dropout rates, as well as incarceration rates.

But how can we change what we often do not see? Educating communities about school choice seems like a good place to start, though there are many more students than there are good schools from which to choose. Until we, as American citizens, start wanting academic success for every child in this country the way we want academic success for our own children, institutionalized discrimination will continue.


I agree with you to a certain point. I was never a formal teacher, but I have taught inner city classes for a few years as an informal educator. What I noticed is that the majority of programs that the government supports and/or that are grant funded go to inner city schools. On the surface this seems like a great idea, mostly b/c these students would not normally get these types of opportunities and programs. However, what I've noticed is that the programs I have been a part of, for the most part, are a waste of time. The kids that I have been around do not have basic needs met. They do not sleep enough, they do not get enough attention at home b/c they have numerous brothers and sisters, etc. So how would they benefit from something extra? The kids are not prepared to come to school to do anything productive. I think much more responsibility should be put on the parent than the education system. I heard that when school starts the public school system is going to be giving away free things to kids that attend school? Shouldn't this be the parents responsibility? From what I've seen the classes are not overcrowded like they were when I went to school, in fact they are cut in half (approx 15/class). It upsets me a little to see these great programs not used to their potential b/c the kids 'aren't there.' Personally I'd rather see these programs in schools that would take them more seriously.

The answer to this problem is right in front of our faces. The solution is a “Voucher” system, yes as a public school teacher this kills me to say. This was proposed by our president and has been fought ever since. I used to think that “Vouchers” were a terrible idea and they would destroy the public school system however, I now believe that they might be a good thing. They will even the playing field.
The problem is not racism or a lack of funding. I live / work in the meto St. Louis area. I was shocked to learn that the City of St. Louis school district receives more money per student than any other district in the area. This just tells me that they are not spending their money appropriately.
I upsets me every time I hear someone say that the reason schools are not doing well is because of racism. I look around me and I teach in a 99% black school, yet over 80% of the teachers are white. The reason schools are not doing well is not because of racism it’s because our society does not value education. We need to get our parents involved and hold them responsible for their children.

Wow, where do I begin? I know, I'll start by telling a story. Last year I was told by an elementary inner city principal that neither I, George Bush, nor any "white-bread, mini-van driving, soccer mom from the county understood the problems facing the urban school districts". First, I looked over my shoulder to see just who he was refering to! (I'm pretty far from a soccer mom, although the co-worker with me shirked behind her soccer jersey and ran to hide in her mini-van..) He had that morning removed his own tie to loan to a student that had to attend his grandfather's funeral, crying because there was no tie in his house to wear. He said he could worry about test scores and NCLB only after he worried about who was fed that morning, and who had had a home to go to the night before. Most of the folks that don't live in the city are truly clueless. Half of the kids in the city schools change schools at some point during the school year. (which is why we need workbooks..they need to literally be on the same page when they are jumping from building to building..)
Until we find a way to make the parents understand the importance of a high school education, let alone a college education, we will never break the cycle of dropout rates in the urban areas. Amy, you mentioned "how can we change what we often do not see?" Don't be naive, we see it. We chose to do nothing about it. Those parents whose children are suffering from the lack of a better education have not cared enough to step up and say enough is enough. Until they speak up, stop accepting the substandard education their children are receiving, nothing will change. Check out the numbers of parents attending PTO meetings, and parent/teacher conferences. It's dismal.

Thanks for your article this week. Yes, institutionalized racism does run deeply in our society, resulting in a number of inequities. Of course every parent/guardian has to step up for their child, but it is no coincidence that most parents struggling with the constant stress of too few resources and poorly funded public services are mostly African-American and Hispanic-Latino. It's very easy to lay the blame at the feet of seemingly uncaring parents without having experienced the daily struggles and setbacks so many lower income families face.

Thank you for helping to continue a much-needed dialogue.

For three years I worked in a school system in California where one of the middle schools was on state sanctions for lack of progress. Why? the white students were not achieving. What happened for these students? Nothing!! Because they were white and therefore not of councern. Why don't we focus on helping the child learn and attend school and just forget who is of what race??? Good teachers and administrators make sure all student learn the skills to be successful. No question there is prejudice but it is coming from all sides. I think we should stop talking, blaming, minimizing, ignoring, and all of the other dysfunctional family approaches and focus on teaching before another generation is lost to us.

Amy, another very relevent article and I think you hit a home run. I used to advocate school of choice and vouchers, but what of the kids left behind? I also used to think that it all had to do with the home environment and the disporportunate number of broken homes in the minority population. However, a study by Jay P. Greene, Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, indicates that hispanic students had a two percent lower graduation rate than blacks yet are traditionally considered a stronger family culture. So what is the problem then? In my opinion, it is parental involvement or lack thereof in the educational process and of course, peer pressure. Until the parent(s) become actively involved in the process and stress the level of importance of a good education as is the case in Asian cultures, this crisis will continue to produce generations with little hope for a sucessful future.

I lived abroad for many years and there state run boarding school was a very popular option for many kids. Maybe the kids who have less than stable homes & no food in their bellies would benefit from being removed from their current environments. Don't get me wrong I am not advocating "removing" kids from their homes in the child protective manner I am talking about relocating to provide them a different location that offers them the environment where once their physical needs are met they can start to work on gaining the academic skills to get out of the vicious cycle of poverty. These kids would not be prisoners, but free to go home on weekends and breaks. The kids I have seen were thrilled to be going away to go to school. They could hang with their friends their responsibilities were only to take care of themselves and do the school work. It is an option the wealthy often use to provide students with a safe, structured & focused environment in which to learn.
Costs you cry? Many of the kids we are talking about are "poor urban" kids. It probably would not cost significantly more to move them away from the city centers to cheaper almost rural areas. What they save in real estate, and salaries in the rural areas would supplement the roof & 3 square meals (of which 2 are probably already being paid for with breakfast and lunch programs already in place). I'm not talking of moving kids from NYC to Kansas, but a 2-3 hour bus ride can get you in rural NY. Let the grass, trees, & fresh air work it's magic to slow these kids down so they might appreciate the educational opportunities they are being given.
Just a though.

I love that idea! A few years ago, I went to a conference for a Montessori School and listened to a guest lecturer from the Hershey Montessori Farm School located in Ohio for children ages 12-15.
Although the tuition makes it inaccessible for most (almost 21K per student) it offers a curriculum where manual and intellectual labor go hand-in-hand. There really is something magical about the countryside, trees and fresh air.
But would the American Public ever go for something like this? Placing kids from impoverished families in rural boarding schools? I must reiterate, I love that idea!
I once went with a group of urban high school students to visit a wind farm in rural Illinois. These kids were so freaked out by being in the countryside that they were barely able to talk. It was amazing to watch their reactions and to see the calming effects nature had on them. A few had never even been out of the city...

Institutionalized discrimination? You hit the nail on the head, but you are dead wrong about who is being discriminated against. The drop out rate is a result of limiting social and economic opportunities for minorities? Give me a break. The drop out rate is a result of dysfunctional families, single parent homes, rampant drug use and students which refuse to learn. It starts at home. I wish I had the opportunities given to the “minorities”, the Hispanics, the Blacks, the Somalians, the Chinese, the Koreans…
I can only pray my son will have the opportunities afforded to the “minorities”. From scholarships to student loans to work programs, you had better be a minority if you expect assistance. Your position is naive and, in my opinion racist. The last thing my high school needs is another tax payer funded program to address the “needs” of minorities. What my high school does need is an administration which will discipline, punish and expelled the problem “students”, an administration which is not afraid of the ACLU or an Illegal Alien advocacy group. The opportunities are there for ‘minorities”, they are abundant. Still, they make their choices, violence, drugs, crime… I will not sacrifice my students for a handful of delinquents. Stop blaming the educational system, stop blaming teachers. It all starts at home.

Wow, after reading some of these comments I had to go back and re-read the original article to see what kind of nefarious plans the author has for our poor white children. I was shocked to find she had none.

What gives with the knee jerk reactions here? Amy mentions factual disparities between dropout rates and all I see in these comments are sentiments like "But white kids have problems too, those filthy minorities choose the bed they lie in."

I think some of you should go back and read the last paragraph of the article- she is asking you to care about all students equally and half the comments here keep trying to force this conversation back to one about OUR kids, wink, wink, nudge, nudge.

The thing about institutionalized discrimination is that it exists in the institution ITSELF, it is impersonal and it can overwhelm the best intentioned people even if there is not one single racist person involved in any way with the institution.

I personally knew many quite violent, drug addicted, priveleged white suburban kids who only saw their absent parents on weekends who, nevertheless, graduated, continued on to college and are now firmly ensconced in corporate America where they sit in judgement of the dirty, poor masses who just can't seem to get themselves together and make it.
The fact that a person like that, who does everything "wrong", but is lucky enough to go to a "good" high school, is more likely to graduate than a black or hispanic youth, who does everything "right", but goes to a "bad" school is all the evidence I need that discrimination exists within the public institutions of this country.

Amy, thanks for posting yet another worthwhile article. This is obviously a heated conversation and I think it’s something that needs to be addressed post-haste!
And, myshkin, you really made a great point. Thank you for reining this conversation in a bit. Before I read your post I was ready rant in probably a less democratic way as you.
I also agree with Chino, a bit, in that many attitudes, learning styles and habits are learned at home. Things do start in the home, but we as educators have a responsibility to these young people while away from their home. We need to be on our best behavior at all times with young people. We can never show the behaviors we so deeply abhor. We must model to them.
""Still, they make their choices, violence, drugs, crime… I will not sacrifice my students for a handful of delinquents."" Labeling and making obvious, blanket assumptions about behavior issues is not what we should be modeling.
Chino, you should be very careful how you talk of these young people and how you give them regard. Remember that children are expert observers (especially of adults) and they will notice your non-verbal communication (so even if you're not outright telling young people they are delinquents who should be sacrificed to the System and stop bothering you and your perfect students) and they will learn from you, Chino, that they aren't worth your time or anyone else’s, then.
Never, EVER, are you sacrificing a child for another when you make the choice to teach all that are given to you.

Proper education for our youth should include the proper mentoring to guide kids through the stages of their personal growth and experience so that these kids can make the right choices for the right reasons. Many children do not have the capacity for the decisions they need to make to insure a future for themselves. Why do almost all jobs require high school diplomas may be a mystery to some, considering the low requirements of the work, but a diploma is like a passport, in a sense, into the adult work world. Do american kids think about the future? Not many, I'd say. Many are preyed upon by recruiters for the military because they know they can get young adults to be swayed to make immediate decisions, based on the immediacy of their situation. How does this all tie into race? Great question. How are these statistics to be addressed to make improvements without stepping on some not so hidden landmines? These kids need incentive, they need counseling and they need to be tought to make decisions that are more about their tomorrow than their today. The first step is for Americans, all Americans, to accept that we are a multi-racial nation that needs to be integrated comprehensively to be able to evolve. This will happen slowly and painfully for those who resist change, or it can be embraced so that we can steer the future of our quickly expanding demographics. I feel that it is important to conform to these changes in our communities in order to make our schools a place where kids want to be successful. I think there are a lot of realities that outweigh the sense of needing a good, decent or even bare minimum educaton for a lot of kids. I think this is a concern that will continue to grow out of control until we see and address the need for changing the fundaments of our public education system. What background are these kids coming from? What education was offered to their parents? What are their immediate neccessities? Our schools need to promote a new sense of shared culture that kids can embrace outside of whatever saps their will to achieve things on a holistic scale for themselves. Art! Music! Theater! Promote culture! Watch our nation change either for the better or the worse, but hopefully for the better. It's not about inner and outer-city differences anymore. Whole communities are changing. The whole country is changing. We can create a new and stronger culture for our kids through our schools.

Amy: Nice work.
Angie: Perhaps we should figure out how to help the "inner city" kids be more prepared instead of switching the programming to kids who are already prepared.
Joe: What about parents who refuse to take responsibility? Should these people's kids continue to pay for the sins of their parents? Will a voucher program make parents who have neglected their kids education thus far suddenly take a stand?
Radhika: Amen. The educational problems we see are symptoms of a much larger cycle of poverty in this country.
Dr. Mike: How do we control the behavior of parents?
Sharon: Not bad, like an Outward Bound program.
Chino: If a problem student's behavior issues start at home, wouldn't kicking them out of school subject them to even more of that very influence? Better to move them straight into prison probably...
Owen: If you call me I'll fix your bike.

What seems to be one of a few ongoing points to your discourse is the lack of funding in certain low-income, inner city jurisdictions. What has never made any sense to me is the manner in which we as a nation allocate educational funding. As citizens of a seemingly "modern and civilized nation" how do we expect to grow up as a society when we don't take on the responsibility for "all" of the children and all of their educational needs. If I and my neighbor which may collectively earn higher wages pay into a tax system that provides exclusively for "our" children within our small radius of a community, books and educational opportunities...what do I expect when crime, lack of opportuntiy, injustice and disadvantage in the neighborhood across the dividing line leads to the disruption to my sense of safety or "neighborliness". What do we expect? Doesn't EVERY child deserve a sense of equality at the very basic level of learning and growing in an educational equality. We are responsible for educating ourselves and our children to be conscientious and collective members of "our" society. I just don't get it. My kids are out of school...but I believe in a better world where even I am responsible to my neighbors children who should then grow to become responsible and aware and able to continue to give back. It is being civilized and human.

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Recent Comments

  • Amanda Lisborn: What seems to be one of a few ongoing points read more
  • Scott: Amy: Nice work. Angie: Perhaps we should figure out how read more
  • owen: Proper education for our youth should include the proper mentoring read more
  • the rambler: Amy, thanks for posting yet another worthwhile article. This is read more
  • myshkin: Wow, after reading some of these comments I had to read more




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