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Educator Jeffrey Duncan-Andrade: Teachers Must Fight Inequality, Not Create It

Schools typically see children as broken and try to fix them, but it’s our schools and society that is broken.

“In order to do effective educational work, you need truth-telling, even when the truth is noxious,” says educator and author Jeffrey Duncan-Andrade.

Like most public school teachers, Jeffrey M.R. Duncan-Andrade knows that educators are first responders: They are often the first non-family members to see children when they are unwell, angry, depressed or agitated. But unlike many of his peers, he sees his role, first and foremost, as promoting “wellness” of body, emotions, mind and spirit. His latest book, Equality or Equity: Toward a Model of Community-Responsive Education, offers a prescriptive message for local schools and school districts and shifts the focus from rote learning and standardized testing to instead promote relationships that lead to flourishing communities and engaged individuals. It’s an exciting, empowering vision.

It’s also bold, and poses a direct challenge to an educational system Duncan-Andrade says “was built to be unequal and segregated.” As he writes in Equality or Equity, “the idea of an equal education system presumes a social, economic, and political reality that has never existed in these United States. It completely ignores centuries of radicalized inequality wrought by white supremacy, male supremacy, hetero supremacy and xenophobia.”

Upending these systems is Duncan-Andrade’s mission. In this interview, Duncan-Andrade discusses how his ideas around education took shape, and how his personal experiences as a student, parent and teacher factor into his evolving ideas. He also offers his thoughts about how to combat school funding inequities and nurture a love of learning among students.

Eleanor J. Bader: Let’s start with your background. How have your experiences influenced your ideas about education?

Jeffrey M.R. Duncan-Andrade: I was born in Los Angeles, but my family did a lot of migration because of different challenges we faced. I am the youngest of seven children, and growing up, I did not feel like my teachers had a deep interest in me or my family.

When I started high school, we were living in a rural county of southern Oregon, in one of the poorest areas of the country. The school was large and a lot of the students were steeped in intergenerational poverty. But even though I was poor, I was a good athlete. I could jump high and run fast, which meant I was somewhat privileged within the school. One of my sisters had gone to this school and had dropped out, and I remember one of my teachers telling me that I was not like her. This teacher told me that I could use school to get out of southern Oregon, out of poverty. At that time, I was running the streets, doing things I should not have been doing, but because I could play the school game and was an athlete, I was seen as redeemable. My siblings were not. This teacher did not understand that I was not interested in escaping my community. I did not see my neighbors, my abuelita, my family, as a problem. I never wanted to escape them or even escape poverty. Instead, I wanted school to help me end poverty. That would have been an education to value, an education that taught transformation.

Later, I was recruited by a few colleges and I ended up at the University of California-Berkeley. I initially struggled a lot. I was rooming with people whose fathers ran U.S. corporations. It was shocking. After a serious athletic injury, I started asking myself what I was doing there. I stopped going to classes and was put on academic probation. I knew I could do the work, but the ether I breathed, the privilege that surrounded me, was so alien. Eventually, another athlete suggested I talk to Professor Harry Edwards, a Black sociologist who taught at the school. I did, and his impact on me was profound.

Edwards basically told me that I had a responsibility to my community and suggested I use the opportunity I’d been given for more than myself. I was 18 when I met Edwards and I literally wept the whole way back to my dorm after our first conversation. What he said set me on the sacred path the Creator intended for me.

I began studying the way I trained as an athlete. It was at that point that I started to think of myself as a scholar.

You are now a professor of Latina/o Studies and Race and Resistance Studies at San Francisco State University, but you were also involved in creating a charter school in Oakland called Roses in Concrete Community School. Tell me about the school.

We took the name from a poem by Tupac Shakur, “The Rose That Grew from Concrete.” The idea was very much aligned with Harry Edwards’s message to me. Many teachers see the Black and Brown students in their classes as “damaged petals,” and fail to see the tenacity, strength and resilience it takes for a flower to flourish in an inhospitable environment. We — teachers, community members, parents and students — founded Roses in Concrete in 2013 as a community program, built a curriculum and hired staff that reflected who we wanted our students to emulate. We used the term “warrior-scholar,” which was taken from 15th-century Japan. At that time, Japan afforded its highest reverence to warrior-scholars. We stressed that if you do not study, you become a soldier, someone who follows orders. Warriors, on the other hand, think for themselves. They learn math, science, history so they can be assets to the community. We taught the students that everything has to be done with intention. Why are you writing? Is it to make money and escape the community? We want our students to know, first, that they have value. We want them to know their ancestors and the richness of the heritage they come from. We followed this course until 2020.

Four years after opening Roses in Concrete, the political climate in the school district changed. Suddenly, there was tremendous focus on our test scores. We were up front when we opened that we would never focus on standardized testing. In fact, this orientation had gotten us a lot of attention both locally and nationally, including major investment from philanthropy; it also won us several awards.

After a lot of discussion in our school community and with the district, we made the decision to merge with the last predominantly Black elementary school in East Oakland. We morphed into a K-5 school called the Oakland Academy of Knowledge, OAK. OAK continues our focus on community engagement and acts as the district’s lab school for building ethnic studies in an elementary school.

School funding inequities are rampant. How does this impact public education in California? How can we change funding streams to be more equitable?

California has one of the largest economies in the world. But thanks to something called Proposition 13, which was passed by voters in 1978, state funding for public education has been decimated. Of course, the impact has not been as severe for middle- and upper-class communities. These wealthier communities use private fundraising and local bond measures to ensure that their schools are well-resourced. Meanwhile, schools in less affluent communities ended up cutting sports, counseling, arts and music while wealthier schools simply launch annual fundraising campaigns. This enables them to keep their counselors, nurses, coaches, and music and art teachers. We’ve ended up with privately subsidized public education.

Just this morning, OAK, which is my sons’ school — I have twins in 4th grade — asked if I could donate so they could pay for a bus to take the kids on a class trip. I can, but at the same time, neighboring Piedmont recently raised millions to build an athletic facility while in Oakland we need to collect nickels and dimes to rent a bus.

So yes, funding is a huge issue. As it stands now, those who have the most get the most and those who have the least get the least. It needs to be inverted. Schools that serve children living in poverty, kids whose families have been locked out or whose communities have experienced genocide, need more than kids who are well-resourced. Leveling needs to privilege those who have never been prioritized. This is the only way we will ever become a society of equals.

A lot of folks, including teachers’ unions, advocate a community schools model, where the school works in tandem with health providers, social services, employers, and others. Is this worth pursuing?

A lot of people, including unions, are looking for a playbook, a panacea. It does not exist. What we need is a more dynamic model of community responsiveness. The community school model has the potential to do this, but to be truly responsive to the community, you can’t have an educational workforce that is 80 percent white.

Equity is often used as a buzzword. Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, says that you need proximity to pain if you are going to eradicate it. Many teachers do not understand what this means. Teachers’ unions and their members need to do a lot of self-reflection so that the most wounded children, the kids who have been the most harmed by poverty and educational apartheid, are better served. We as a country are overdue for a conversation that asks why we take children from their families for 13 years, seven hours a day. The assumption is that public schools are a public good, but I see many public schools as toxic.

In order to do effective educational work, you need truth-telling, even when the truth is noxious. We need to grapple with the fact that the project of education has reified race, class and gender apartheid. The U.S. has the world’s biggest wealth gap, but instead of dealing with this, we’ve repeatedly moved deck chairs around on the Titanic. We need to make sure that every child in the U.S. has access to an education that teaches them that inequality is unacceptable.

We need curricula that focus on teaching the truth.

Kids have so many answers. Kids are so creative, so oriented toward problem solving. You see it on the playground. Kids have a profound sense of justice. If we educate students to be well, to guarantee that when they leave home for school, they will return mentally healthy, they will be able to come up with cures for many of the social ills we’re facing.

So many kids hate schools. How can we encourage this creativity?

Kids need to love themselves first. If children do not love themselves, they will never thrive.

Teachers should be evaluated on their relationships with the children in their classes. These relationships are the leading indicator of student engagement, and if a teacher does not have strong, trusting relationships with students, the curriculum will not matter.

How do we ensure this?

If we want to change the end game, one strategy is to plan backwards. You start by keeping the end you want in mind and then scaffolding the ideas needed to get there. This is what we need to do as a nation. But it goes without saying that this has to be locally driven and account for the specificity of a particular student population. It can’t be cookie cutter.

Teachers also have to deal with a lot of trauma. How can they be better prepared to deal with the emotional and psychological issues so many students face?

You can’t ask teachers to be trauma-responsive unless you train them in how trauma impacts the body and mind and what can be done about it. Training people to deal with trauma — sometimes referred to as ACEs, Adverse Childhood Experiences — has become a cottage industry. Unfortunately, the model often fails to support either young people or their teachers.

Schools typically see children as broken and try to fix them. But children are not broken. It’s our schools, our society, that is broken and children are responding to the conditions they experience. Schools need to train teachers to build a culture of healing. Kids experience hunger, violence, houselessness, and need extended multi-year relationships with skilled adults. At the same time, we need to be honest about what’s happening and why. I truly believe that if we talked openly about racism, classism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia, the kids would come up with policies and practices to move us off the cliff of public health crises. But to do this, we have to stare the truth in the face — and address it.

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