Part 1 of 2
MADISON, Wis. – On the surface “CREATE Wisconsin” seems noble enough in its intent.
The program, established in 2009 by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, was supposedly developed to help school teachers and administrators better understand the challenges facing minority students – particularly black kids – in the state’s K-12 schools.
It argues that minority students sometimes struggle because public education is geared toward white students, and lessons are often delivered in a manner that minority students can’t understand.
It argues that too many minority students are placed in special education because school officials fail to understand their strengths, challenges and cultural norms.
In short, the achievement gap that exists between white and minority students has less to do with ability than culture, and the lack of a level playing field in schools.
But there are questions about CREATE Wisconsin that deserve answers – particularly its emphasis on “white privilege” and its determination to create a distinct set of expectations for minority students.
You can also view the new EAGnews expose, “RE-CREATING AMERICA: Cultural Sensitivity in Wisconsin Schools.”
Program based on guilt and resentment?
CREATE Wisconsin (the acronym stands for “Culturally Responsive Education for All: Training and Enhancement”) is funded with grant money from the federal IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) program. It costs about $890,000 per year to operate.
At first the use of the grant money makes sense, because a disproportionate percentage of Wisconsin special education students come from racial minority groups.
In the Madison district, for example, blacks comprise 24 percent of the student population but also 29 percent of special education students. Native Americans comprise only one percent of the student population but 20 percent of special education students.
CREATE Wisconsin hosts an annual conference and various workshops for educators. Teachers from school districts across the state have participated in the events.
So far, so good.
But the program seems to be heavily focused on creating a sense of guilt within white educators, and resentment among minorities, by portraying American society, and therefore our schools, as hopelessly racist.
The message for white educators is to create special conditions to accommodate minority students, because they can’t be expected to learn or succeed under current conditions.
This doesn’t have the feel of a program that’s genuinely designed to bring people of different races closer together, or open more windows for minority kids.
It seems more like an attempt to address racial, social and political grievances, and create a separate (and not particularly beneficial) set of expectations for minority students.
None of this is particularly surprising when you consider who’s influencing CREATE Wisconsin. One of the program’s main consultants is Glenn Singleton, founder of the Pacific Educational Group. That group’s mission is to “enlighten” the nation’s educators about how public schools promote “white culture” and “white privilege.”
PEG trains educators to view “rugged individualism,” “adherence to rigid time schedules,” and the belief that “hard work is the key to success” as traits of the dominant white culture that don’t pertain to minority students.
CREATE teaches that traditional culture is racist
The theory that too many black kids end up in special education because they and their culture are misunderstood may well be accurate. The same theory probably applies to many children who grow up in poverty, regardless of their race.
“(T)here is a huge disparity in overrepresentation, misclassification, and hardship for minority students, primarily for African-Americans and Native Americans, not only in referral to special education, but also in identification as special ed,” said Matt Stewart, a professor/author who spoke at the 2009 CREATE Wisconsin conference.
But it’s easy to see how any constructive effort to address this problem, and make education more meaningful for children of color, could easily get lost in the tsunami of race baiting that seems to be a dominant message of CREATE Wisconsin.
Consider some of the statements we’ve gleaned from Create Wisconsin speeches, power-points and website postings:
“In this country the institutional system supports the dominance of white people.”
“More frequently than not, white people take advantage of privileges generated by a racist society.”
“We are given a false sense of superiority, a belief that we should be in control and in authority, and that people of color should be maids, servants and gardeners and be limited to the less-valued work in our society.”
Now wait just one minute. There’s no question that America has a long and shameful history of racism, and it continues to plague us today. But we’ve also come a long way – many black Americans and other minority citizens have been wildly successful in traditional American society – and that hopeful fact should be recognized in schools.
Millions of white Americans didn’t seem to have a problem voting for an African-American for President of the United States in 2008 and 2012. Nobody insisted that Barack Obama settle for a career as a servant or gardener.
“Racism is caused by white people, by our attitudes, behaviors, practices and institutions. How is it that white people can justify retaining the benefits of being white without taking responsibility for perpetuating racism? How can you justify it for yourself?”
“Most white people are in denial about the advantages that white people gain from the disadvantages of people of color.”
“There appears to be a national trend that can be attributed (to) the conservative agenda that currently exists with former closet racists leaving the closet and entering the light to write policies that support covert and overt racism that impact students of color.”
Could inflammatory statements of this type lead to anything positive or constructive? Are these statements designed to bring people of different races closer together, or drive us further apart?
If you were a young minority student, and you read the statements above, would you be more inclined to trust any white educator, or accept kindness, assistance or friendship from anyone with white skin?
The scary part is thousands of Wisconsin teachers are absorbing this material at CREATE Wisconsin conferences and probably spreading it around their home districts.
CREATE says minority kids must be coddled to succeed
CREATE Wisconsin argues that students of color are bound to struggle in regular education classrooms due to cultural bias. That’s why so many of them are classified as having learning disabilities and enrolled in some type of special education program.
“Many of these students simply act, speak, react and engage in ways different from the culture of most American teachers, and most American teachers not only do not know how to deal with these students, but have been taught through years of white privilege that these children are different, slower and to be feared,” Stewart said at the 2009 CREATE Wisconsin conference.
There may be some validity to that argument. White teachers should be more aware of how their daily lessons, and the manner in which they communicate with students, might be lost on children from non-white cultures.
But most reasonable people would reject the idea, offered by experts working with “CREATE Wisconsin,” that minority kids are incapable of learning in regular classrooms.
The following quote is particularly troublesome:
“When I came here the teachers really did believe that they were doing the best job for the population that they worked with,” Sharon Brittingham, a school principal, told the 2010 CREATE Wisconsin conference. “But what had to change was that belief that these children could learn at high levels of expectations.”
Millions of successful Americans from all racial groups have proven that theory dead wrong. They have cruised through K-12 schools and college just as easily as white students and created successful careers and lives for themselves in traditional America.
Even worse may be the idea of overly customizing education to match what CREATE Wisconsin says are cultural norms of minority groups, particularly when those supposed norms aren’t consistent with the demands of the work world.
CREATE Wisconsin tells teachers that it’s somehow wrong to expect minority students to conduct themselves in a manner consistent with traditional American culture. The program says minority kids frequently have a “different value and view on time, missed days, working together, and wait time between questions and answers.”
It tells teachers to “be flexible” with minority students who are persistently late or miss a lot of school days. It also tells teachers to be tolerant if black children exhibit “an exuberant participation style of shouting out answers and questions.”
It also claims that a form of English popularly used in black communities (officially labeled African American Vernacular English) “is an area that needs to be explicitly taught.”
Are teachers really serving the best interests of these kids by giving them their own set of rules and expectations? Someday most of these children will graduate and face life in the same work world as the rest of us.
Most employers don’t care if employees share their views about being on time, missing days, working together or personal conduct. Employees either fit in or hit the road. Their bosses won’t check with CREATE Wisconsin before deciding if they’re worth keeping.
There must be a way for educators to respect different cultures and help struggling minority children understand their school lessons, while still preparing them for the realities of life in the United States.
Successful adults assimilate into the predominant culture of their societies, and it’s the job of educators to help them reach that goal.
We hope the teachers who are influenced by CREATE Wisconsin somehow manage to keep that in mind.