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The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

Pedro Noguera gives keynote address at American Studies conference

By Maya Pisel

Pedro Noguera, a prominent player in education studies and education reform, gave the American Studies Keynote Address last Thursday as part of Black History Month. Noguera’s speech, entitled “Challenging Racial Inequality in Our Schools,” was delivered to an audience that nearly filled the Kagin Ballroom.The American Studies Department at Macalester has an annual tradition of hosting a conference dealing with issues of social justice, race, and civic engagement, said Dean for the Study of Race and Ethnicity and chair of the department Jane Rhodes. Noguera, who is a professor at the Steinhardt School of Education at New York University, Director of the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education, author of several books on the subject of urban education, and a part-time high-school teacher, is involved in the policy collaborative calling for “A Broader, Bolder Approach to Education.” The BBA describes itself on its website as “the product of deliberation by leaders with diverse religious and political affiliations.”

“Freedom to learn is an essential element of global citizenship,” said American Studies professor Karine Aguilar San Juan in her introduction, and thus was a fitting topic for this year’s seminar.

Noguera said that public education is the primary way the United States has tried to address racial inequality.

“To think that education alone can solve this problem is, I think, a setup for failure,” Noguera said. “In many ways, we ask too much of schools.”

Yet Noguera described himself as a “pragmatic optimist” and “critical supporter of public education,” asserting that, despite all its challenges, “education is the only way you can transform lives and expand opportunity.”

“Our public schools in America are all that remains of the social safety net for poor children.[because] all children, regardless of their background, have a right to education,” Noguera said.

Yet, Noguera criticized, “our schools are implicated in reproducing patterns of inequality.”

“Our schools are more segregated now than they were in the facto segregation is the law of the land,” Noguera said. “If we don’t learn together, are we prepared to live in a society that is more and more diverse?”

Noguera said that “No Child Left Behind,” a controversial school reform law enacted under President Bush in 2002, “did something amazing in American history [by saying] there must be evidence that all children regardless of their background are learning.”

Yet, Noguera continued, NCLB “also distorted what we think of as learning” by mandating that evidence come in the form of test scores.

Noguera also criticized that NCLB calls for government takeover of failing schools.

“State Departments of Education are no better than districts,” he said.

Noguera’s biggest criticism was that “the vision guiding our schools is that there’s a problem with the kids” and the communities in which they live.

“The problem is not the children,” Noguera countered. “The problem is the way we treat the children.”

Similarly, Noguera continued, while teachers in affluent districts nearly always say they are accountable to their students’ parents, teachers in poor districts often overlook or look down on their students’ parents. In many cases, especially in certain charter school models designed to “break” inner-city children, Noguera said the mentality of teachers and administrators is that “the way you save kids is taking them away.” In other words, the only way to educate poor children is to make them middle class.

“Kids shouldn’t have to choose between their families and their success,” Noguera said.

He explained that one result of the mentality that urban students are not inherently capable is that children are disciplined into following directions rather than empowered to think creatively and independently.

“We need an education that also gives them the ability to critique the society they’re living in and the ability to imagine new ways of living . It can’t just be about fitting in, it also has to be about transforming,” Noguera said.

As an example of a successful empowering school, Noguera discussed Renaissance Charter School in Queens, where students voted on whether to allow hats, religious headscarves, and turbans to be worn in school. Students respect the decision to restrict hat-wearing to the hallways, Noguera said, because they made it.

At Renaissance, “kids are actually empowered to make think and reason on their own, not just avoid punishment,” he said.

After his speech, Noguera took questions from the audience on topics like the role of charter schools and how to change teacher’s minds without making them defensive. Eddy Zheng, a community activist and former inmate at San Quentin State Prison in California who was visiting Macalester, asked about the “schools to prison pipeline,” a popular phrase for describing high rates of incarceration among urban youth.

Noguera responded that “we incarcerate the children that we don’t educate.schools are heavily implicated in this ballooning prison population.”

Abas Noor ’13 asked about the role of colleges, universities, and their students in helping struggling public schools. Noguera said they should be doing a lot more.

Finally, Noguera offered criticism in response to a question about programs like Breakthrough and Teach for America.

“Putting inexperienced teachers into the hardest classrooms is not good,” Noguera said.

Moreover, Noguera said he was “bothered by the idea of people who see teaching as missionary work,” a statement that evoked sighs of agreement from the audience.

The missionary quip was not the only provocative statement among Noguera’s remarks. He also bemoaned that there is no observed right to housing or food, claimed that “we are pretty close to an apartheid nation already,” and said that President Barack Obama and US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s underlying message was “we like separate but equal.”

After nearly a dozen questions and with people still standing in line, Noguera said good night and was swarmed with handshakes.

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