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June 8, 2015 - The School-to-Prison Pipeline: An Excerpt from Ceresta Smith's Common Ground Essay

In our very first newsletter, before Common Ground on Common Core had even been published, we offered a brief article about Ceresta Smith, one of the book's contributors. We called Ceresta's essay dangerous, then...and we meant it in the best possible way. We stand by that statement. Today, with the book now out and available to the public, we revisit Ceresta's essay in order to share some of it with you in the form of an excerpt.

To preface her words...

Having taught grades 6 through 12, Ceresta is a seasoned educator and a strong public school advocate and activist whose essay, "Common Core and America's People of Color" is written out of deep experience. She writes with power and eloquence about how the so-called education reforms of the last several decades have deeply compromised and destablilized communities of color over the last several decades. She necessarily concludes that, though such reforms have repeatedly been advertised as a way to advance minorities, they have done more damage than good, proving to be an abysmal failure—one that continues right through the present day with the Common Core State Standards, the acceleration of high-stakes assessment. 

As we noted in our newsletter article last year, the Black community is, quite literally, false education reform's canary in the coalmine, serving as a warning to the rest of us. Those pushing the poison have in many senses gutted vulnerable communities first. Moreover, they have worked assiduously to marginalize and silence Black educators attempting to stand against the chicanery. Make no mistake: The "reformers" are coming for all of us. No one of any race, creed, or color is safe from an agenda that, insisting on compliance, sacrifices true education and the future opportunities of real and unique children for the centralized and private control of both markets and people.*

We warn you: Ceresta tells the truth in a way that will not sit comfortably with some readers. But comfort has never been our goal here at Resounding Books. Instead, we aim to provide important information that holds value for anyone with the courage to consider and leverage it, no matter where they may identify along the political or ideological spectrum...information that can shed light, break down walls, and build solid bridges between people who may have thought they had nothing to talk about.

Without further delay, then, an excerpt from Ceresta's essay:

In Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo, like most archetypal tragic heroes, ends up dead. He realizes the war is lost before it begins because his tribal members forget a proverb shared by the elders: “[T]he sun will shine on those who stand before it shines on those who kneel under them.” His warrior spirit is unable to live under the submissive and oppressive force of colonial rule. Consequently, he commits suicide. While viewing the body, one of the colonists decides to devote a couple of paragraphs to Okonkwo in a book he plans to write, The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger

Unfortunately, many non-white people commit a symbolic suicide of self when they buckle under the pressure of a public school system that has a history of inequity, sublimation, and oppression. There is no strong evidence that the implementation of Common Core will not continue the history of institutionalized racism that has resulted in an increase in stressors and a consequential reduction in resiliency for non-whites, playing out as dysfunction and failure, often leading from school to prison for both students and adults. It seems contradictory that an institution that is supposed to nurture and build social skills, develop intellect, and prepare students for college and/or careers could somehow form a pipeline to prison; but, for non-whites, it does so disproportionately. [See infographic below, cited by Ceresta in the full essay.]

The institution of “zero tolerance” policies that suspend and arrest students for very minor infractions (that would previously have been dealt with in-house), the trend of pushing out students with low standardized test scores that justify punitive accountability policies, and the failure of students to earn high school diplomas due to standardized exit exam requirements have facilitated an increase in student arrests and incarcerations. 

Likewise, far too many non-white adult educators have faced indictments and possible prison sentences due to alleged cheating in relationship to standardized tests. “Wrong Answer,” a compelling biographical narrative written by Rachael Aviv and published in the New Yorker Magazine, chronicles the Atlanta Public Schools test cheating scandal from the perspective of two individuals: Damany Lewis, a math teacher at Parks Middle School, first to be fired out of 178 accused educators; and Christopher Waller, a Methodist pastor who had worked in public schools for nine years before becoming principal at Parks. While Lewis was initially hesitant to be involved in cheating, Waller was eventually able to recruit him to what was, by 2008, a team of nine educators. The cheating, as Waller phrases it, had become a “well-oiled machine.” 

The test irregularities and improbabilities ultimately generated an investigation that included more than 2,000 interviews. The resulting report concluded that forty-four schools had cheated and that a “culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation [had] infested the district, allowing cheating—at all levels—to go unchecked for years.” The authors suggest that data had been, “used as an abusive and cruel weapon to embarrass and punish.” In the end, Waller, thirty-three other educators, and Superintendent Beverly Hall were brought up on charges. Waller agreed to act as a prosecution witness, serve five years probation, and pay financial restitution. 

Atlanta is hardly an isolated case. In May of 2014, one principal and four teachers in Philadelphia, all women of color but one, were similarly arrested on charges inclusive of felony racketeering, records tampering, perjury, forgery, and criminal conspiracy. In both Atlanta and Philadelphia, the educators taught in schools filled with impoverished students facing social conditions that wear on the ability to produce great results on high-stakes standardized tests. With the impossible demands increasingly placed on educators in similar communities, cheating has begun to occur all over the United States. One can only conclude that more “rigorous” national standards and their assessments will only increase the pressure on teachers in compromised teaching communities and exacerbate the teacher-to-prison pipeline.

Ceresta's essay can be read in full in Common Ground on Common Core, the full version of which is available exclusively from Resounding Books. Or you can find it in Common Ground on Common Core, Vol. 2, one of four Kindle mini-collections of essays from the original book available only on 



* We cannot emphasize strongly enough that it is private/controlled markets and planned/managed economics that are being implemented in and via today's education game, not free markets, which are defined merely by the voluntary and cooperative exchange of goods and services. The co-option of the term "free market" and the resulting confusion, is something false reformers have very purposely and unethically leveraged.  

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