Bettina Love is the William F. Russell Professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. She is co-founder of the Abolitionist Teaching Network (ATN), which supports teachers and parents fighting educational injustice by distributing grants around the country. Her commentary has been featured on various new outlets, such as NPR, PBS, Washington Post, and The Guardian, to name a few.
Below, Bettina shares 5 key insights from her new book, Punished for Dreaming: How School Reform Harms Black Children and How We Heal. Listen to the audio version—read by Bettina herself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. Educational reform is harmful to black children.
For the past forty years, education reform policy has been deliberately crafted to punish Black people for fighting for their right to quality public education. The cruelest part of the so-called reform efforts is that they have relied on and taken advantage of Black people’s aspirations—their hopes for education, self-determination, economic mobility, and, ultimately, freedom.
I was born a scant four years before the release of “A Nation at Risk”, the Reagan administration’s report on the state of American education. The report was filled with alarmist language about the systemic failure of American schools to provide adequate education; coupled with its emphasis on the need for reform, it cast a long and dark shadow over young Black people of my generation.
“A Nation at Risk”, together with Reagan’s War on Drugs, set in motion the merging of prisons and schools under the guise of “getting tough” on education. “Getting tough” was a euphemism for “punishment,” sold to the public as high-stakes testing, school choice, vouchers, charter schools, and school safety. Police officers were placed in schools along with metal detectors, police dogs, and surveillance equipment to control the students they now openly called thugs and criminals.
Punishment became our primary solution. We were tough on crime and tough on public education. Under the slogans of “school accountability” and “school safety,” schools morphed into spaces of surveillance, confinement, and state-sanctioned violence to Black bodies. Schools became part of the police state. The joining of these industries—prisons and education—created a system where Black children attended schools that structurally placed punishment, violence, police, standardized testing, and profits before learning.
The conjoining of schools and prisons is not a conspiracy theory. It is a well-executed plan that has taken the lives of Black children with surgical precision. My life and the lives of my peers were forever shaped by coming of age under a government that declared war on them, not only in the streets but also in schools, at the intersection of economic gain and racist ideology.
2. Teach for America harms black children.
The education crisis manufactured by Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush created an entire job sector for education entrepreneurs who hijacked public education using government funds. Teach for America (TFA) is a prime example of an entrepreneurial venture that used the unproven idea of taking uncertified teachers and putting them in classrooms with students that need the most skilled teachers, ultimately sacrificing Black children’s lives and education along the way.
Princeton University senior Wendy Kopp stepped into the burgeoning field of education entrepreneurship by creating TFA. She secured $26,000 in funding from the philanthropic wing of the oil company Mobil, now known as ExxonMobil. From the start, she was bankrolled by corporate America and philanthropists. Kopp proposed enlisting college graduates from elite universities to teach for two years in urban schools—precisely the schools that White America had abandoned a few decades earlier. America’s so-called brightest students, with zero teaching experience, would spend two years in an inner-city school, experimenting on Black children. These young and eager graduates were tasked with working in struggling schools that were designed to fail. That is to say, schools that were underfunded, had high teacher burnout, and administered tests that punished students. TFA recruits were given only two years—if they could make it that long—to “make a difference.”
“Being a part of TFA looks great on the résumés of recent college grads, but there’s no conclusive evidence that TFA is effective.”
Across the country, young do-gooders— convinced that public schools needed them—flew into inner cities to save the day, creating networks of charter schools and taking up teaching jobs through TFA placements. All you needed was a college degree, a deep-seated belief that public education was a failure, and the hubris that you could fix Black education with no experience.
Being a part of TFA looks great on the résumés of recent college grads, but there’s no conclusive evidence that TFA is effective. A 2002 study found that, unlike certified teachers, TFA teachers had a negative impact on their students’ outcomes. Renowned educational researcher and policy expert Linda Darling-Hammond studied teachers and students in Houston and found that certified teachers’ students consistently outperformed those taught by uncertified TFA teachers. Other studies have come to the same conclusion, finding that new instructors are less effective than veteran teachers, and new teachers are least successful in their first two years.
TFA ranks among the one hundred largest nonprofits in the nation, with an endowment of $208 million, over $245 million in awarded philanthropic grants, and $40 million received annually from the federal government as of 2016.
TFA’s overwhelming presence is overwhelmingly in urban schools. It’s no secret that TFA teachers are rarely in suburban schools. We do not send uncredentialed teachers into white schools, or at least not middle- or upper-class ones.
3. In the U.S., Black people’s lives are carceral.
There is no school-to-prison pipeline: Black people’s lives, regardless of location, are carceral. Schools are too often just another place where Black bodies are disciplined, tested, harmed, caged, and disposed of. For Black people in this country, protection, safety, and freedom from carcerality are tangential and, at best, temporary, even within schools. At any time, the state can dispose of us.
All Black life, regardless of the setting, can be carceral. Driving is carceral (Sandra Bland). Sleeping is carceral (Breonna Taylor). Shopping is carceral (George Floyd). Playing in the park is carceral (Tamir Rice). Protecting trees is carceral (Bobbi Wilson). Walking home is carceral (Trayvon Martin). Home buying is carceral (Roy Thorne). Watering your neighbors’ flowers is carceral (Pastor Michael Jennings). Exercising is carceral (Ahmaud Arbery). Calling the police for help is carceral (Ma’Khia Bryant).
Carcerality is inevitable because Blackness is so often understood as synonymous with criminality. Therefore, we need to expand our understanding of carcerality beyond prison to all Black life living under white rage and anti-Blackness. Black life is consumed with desperately trying to escape carceral inevitability because we wear the “presumption of dangerousness and guilt”—from the cradle to our premature graves. The tentacles of carcerality are always present in Black life, including during school.
“Schools are too often just another place where Black bodies are disciplined, tested, harmed, caged, and disposed of.”
Punishment, testing, police in schools, and incarceration groomed so many for captivity. The national program D.A.R.E., short for Drug Abuse Resistance Education, was created by Daryl Gates of the Los Angeles Police Department. He was one of the most notorious and racist police chiefs in the War on Drugs. He once said that Black people are physiologically different from “normal” people, which explained why Black people die when placed in chokeholds by police. Gates’s state-sanctioned violence toward Black and Brown communities sowed the seeds for the notorious 1992 police beating of Rodney King and the subsequent uprisings in the city.
Gates’s racist ideas and his approach to crime and punishment were disseminated throughout the country, reaching my childhood home in Rochester, New York. The D.A.R.E. program is now taught in all fifty states. By 1995, the program had been taught to more than twenty-five million elementary students. Tens of millions of kids across the country have experienced a police officer entering their schools to tell them to say no to drugs or else suffer the consequence of prison. Countless studies have found D.A.R.E. to be ineffective while others found drug use was higher among youth who completed D.A.R.E.. It is the nation’s single-largest school-based prevention program in terms of federal funding.
4. White philanthropy harms black children.
Like the billionaire philanthropists who came before him, Bill Gates got into philanthropy out of self-interest. Gates needed to repair his image after Microsoft’s antitrust trial in the late 1990s. Gates was seen as “ruthless” and “predatory.” During the trial, video showed Gates as “arrogant, and evasive.” Rebranding himself as a social justice savior, Gates stepped down as CEO and contributed $20.3 billion to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, making it the world’s largest private charity. The foundation’s strategic philanthropy is so well funded that it has come to serve as a power broker for the wealthy, engaging in what John D. Rockefeller III termed “venture philanthropy.” The Gates Foundation, like those of the Kochs, Waltons, and Broads, has great influence over public policy, public health, and public education, which in turn weakens our democracy, reduces civic life for the most vulnerable, and furthers the dismantling of the public sector—especially public education.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has spent billions of dollars on failed educational initiatives. For example, the Gates Foundation bankrolled the Common Core movement that was popular during the early years of the Obama administration. The foundation, with Bill Gates playing a leading role, spent $200 million and pulled significant political weight in convincing state governments to make costly systemic changes to state standards.
After more than forty states signed on to the Common Core, and millions were spent, the initiative fizzled out in 2019 as the conservative right made it a wedge issue, calling it a “federal takeover of schools” and “the silent erosion of our civil liberties.”
The Gates Foundation subsequently released a 526-page report outlining failure after failure—equivalent to more than a million dollars a page. In 2013, Bill Gates acknowledged that the Common Core initiative was not successful.
In the name of philanthropy, these foundations betray the egalitarian undertaking of altruism and sacrifice Black children and pioneering Black educators to absolve themselves from public relations crises, and always, first and foremost, maintain their power.
5. The call for educational reparations.
After 250 years of enslavement, 90 years of Jim Crow, 60 years of the separate-but-equal doctrine, 35 years of housing discrimination, and 40 years of education reform, the U.S. government owes a compounded moral and financial debt to Black people.
It is time for educational reparations. Many scholars, activists, and authors have called for reparations to help address the exploitation and oppression of Black people over the past four centuries. Few, however, have done so in the field of education.
“Every child would benefit from the hiring and retaining of an overrepresentation of teachers of color.”
Educational reform removes the possibility of radically overhauling our educational system. Reforms are used to keep Black progress at bay. Reform takes advantage of our hopes of living outside the conditions created for us. What is owed to Black children and their families, who have been educated in a violent system dedicated to their deprivation? How can we end and repair the harm?
Public education’s divestments and policies document our nation’s commitment to anti-Blackness, providing a clear and concise road map to understanding how Black children—unlike their white peers—have been under-resourced, over-policed, over-tested, and deprived of educational opportunities, with lifelong earning effects. As a nation, we must commit to ending education reform to move public education toward healing and transformation.
Educational reparations are not about creating a better education system that will benefit only Black children. Every child would benefit from the hiring and retaining of an overrepresentation of teachers of color. Schools must center on healing and joy, multiple languages, religions, and abilities. Schools sever education’s ties to carcerality by replacing cops with counselors, therapists, social workers, and nurses. I am not against tests, but we need to end high-stakes standardized testing and replace it with in-house tests that assist teachers in understanding the areas in which their students need more support. Reparations would fund well-resourced state-of-the-art schools with curricula that honor different cultures with love and admiration, and where neurodivergence is celebrated. Schools that function in a thriving democracy don’t track their students; they ensure that all students receive rich and engaging learning opportunities. Ultimately, reparations transform education for children of all skin colors and economic backgrounds.
Through rigorous data collection and analysis from a team of experts, we determined that Black folx are owed $2 trillion for the last 40 years of reform. We hope our work fuels the conversation surrounding educational reparations and moves us closer to investing in Black education for America’s future.
To listen to the audio version read by author Bettina Love, download the Next Big Idea App today: