The 180 Podcast: Jeff Duncan-Andrade: The Purpose of Education Should Be Youth Wellness
Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade has a way of asking questions about the American public school system that are as precise as they are provocative. One of his questions: “Why do we take children by law from their families at age six for 13 consecutive years for eight hours a day?” The response, he says, should be youth wellness.
Every school, he says, “should make a promise to every family that when you drop your child off to us in the morning and turn your back and walk away, our promise to you is that when you come back and pick them up your child will be more well than when you dropped them off.”
He knows that’s impossible for every child every day. But the point for Dr. Duncan-Andrade is that by simply making that promise, our schools have the chance to own it, apologize, and make it right. And while the goal of wellness might be simple, his remedy to reach it is not: A complete rethink and rebuild of public education, one built through something he calls “community responsiveness.”
Dr. Duncan-Andrade — Professor of Latina/o Studies and Race and Resistance Studies at San Francisco State University — also seeks to bring his vision to life through the East Oakland school that he co-founded, the Roses in Concrete Community School, in lectures he delivers around the world, and through his books and numerous journal articles on effective practices in schools.
Chris Riback: Dr. Duncan-Andrade, thanks so much for joining. I appreciate your time.
Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: My pleasure to be here.
Chris Riback: I watched a panel recently that you are a part of that addressed perhaps the central question of our time: Who gets to thrive? Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond outlined the various crises and reckonings we’ve all faced over the last year. Public health, economic, climate, civil rights. And she then noted that such moments often lead to generational social changes. And that felt to me like a good place to start with you. Are we in a moment now that can transform the education system we have? Do we have the opportunity to rethink the project? And where do you see the greatest barriers to the kind of change students and communities need?
Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: Well, I guess I would start saying that we always have that opportunity to rethink what we are doing, particularly as it relates to how we’re treating and taking care of children. This moment is as good as any, maybe better than other times, because I think there’s a level of increasing awareness, that what we have been doing is not working. And it’s obviously not working for the nation’s most vulnerable and wounded children. And I think there’s an increasing awareness that it’s just not working for huge cross sections of children. And you see things like this sort of constant repeating cycle of these school shootings. And these are often happening in wealthy or moderately wealthy communities. Places where I think there was a kind of national presumption that schools were pretty good there and that they were doing a pretty good job with kids. And so I think that along with this long pause because of — “pause,” I’m using air quotes — sort of rejiggering of how we were trying to do school, trying to push it online, suddenly started raising all these questions about, not just about how do we do this, but about what are we doing?
Suddenly you’re in children’s homes, and you’re beginning to realize that this project of public school has at best ignored what’s happening in homes.
Chris Riback: Are you seeing a greater awareness of what people like you are like, “Yes, what’s the surprise here? This has been going on for years.” And maybe that’s on some level the opportunity. There are always problems and crises and half the challenge is getting some type of wider awareness around those problems and challenges.
Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: If I’m being frank, which I always am, I see a very similar cycle that I’ve seen throughout my nearly 30-year career in this work. And what I’m seeing is an increased amount of rhetoric. So people are talking about it more. But on the ground, in reality, I’m working with schools and school districts all over the nation I’m really troubled by the crisis of courage that I see in educational leadership. That if you were going to fundamentally rethink the project of public schools as an educational leader, this would be the moment. Because this is the moment where people wouldn’t look too sideways at that, because they’re sort of open to all kinds of change that has to happen.
Chris Riback: The moment we’ve been waiting for.
Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: Some of us. I think there’s a decent cross section of the nation’s population, at some level those that are particularly benefiting from the existing system and the apartheid-like experience and outcomes that are happening. That aren’t asking fundamental questions of purpose and meaning. Why are we doing this? Why do we take children by law from their families at age six for 13 consecutive years for eight hours a day? Why are we doing that? And I think there’s a decent cross section of people, particularly those in power, that are not inclined to really want to explore that question in a meaningful way because schools from their sort of social-political-economic worldview are working more or less. But those on the ground doing the work, and I think an increasing number of families and young people and educators, are saying, “No, this isn’t working and it hasn’t been maybe ever.” So why aren’t we using this moment … Since we’re coming back, why aren’t we using this moment to do some fundamental redesign? To do some real soul searching and purpose investigation?
And I have to say at the same time that I do not personally or professionally lay that at the feet solely of educational leaders, and I don’t think it’s fair. Because what’s happened is that when all of this started to unfold with the pandemic and going online and all these new risk factors were thrown on educators. No fundamental increase in resources. But no radical increased resources and yet a radical increase in expectation that schools adapt on the fly, real-time, completely rethink, redo everything that they’re doing. So where in that project is there space to dream? Space to redesign? So I do feel like there’s been a real crisis of courage. And I understand why, because now that we’ve been asked to come back into schools, what I’m seeing all over the country is a level of anxiety, stress, exhaustion that is really unhealthy for the adults. And when you get into those moments … I mean we know like neurobiologically, physiologically, when you get into those moments you tend to default to the place of least conflict just to make it through.
So what’s happening in schools is that they’re basically trying to come back to do what they did before they went in the pandemic. And then figure out how to do that in a way that is medically safe.
Chris Riback: New challenges, new if not increased expectations, increased requirements in an increasingly competitive, challenging world with new ideas and new obstacles being thrown at all of us, including students, all at once. I’ve heard you ask that question before and I love the question. Why do we allow our government, why do we encourage our government to take our kids at age six and take them for 13 years. Why do we let them do that? What do we hope comes from that?
Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: I’ll answer this wearing all my hats simultaneously.
Chris Riback: You mean parent … Yes.
Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: So wearing a parent hat of two school aged boys, wearing my researcher’s hat, wearing my veteran classroom teacher hat, wearing my East Oakland 3400 block community hat. All pointing the same direction in my answer to that. The sole foundational purpose of public schools should be youth wellness. That’s it. And what I mean by that is-
Chris Riback: Yes, what do you mean by wellness?
Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: Every school should make a promise to every family that when you drop your child off to us in the morning and turn your back and walk away, our promise to you is that when you come back and pick them up your child will be more well than when you dropped them off. Now, I can say as a skilled, accomplished educator that that’s impossible. You cannot do that for every child every day and that’s okay. That’s okay. But you have to make the promise to the society and to families that that is our foundational purpose is to make sure that they leave the building more well than when they came in. And when we miss the mark, which we will, we will own it and we will atone. And atonement means that you both apologize and you make it right. So you know when you miss the mark with a child, a child is leaving less well than when they came in the building, that you have to pour more medicine in on that child the next day. There’s a debt due. And every family and every child should know that that’s the project.
There’s a group of us who have been working together for a long time to support schools on this journey and the group is called Community Responsive Education. And one of the things that we’ve worked really hard on for the last few years is to actually come up with a community-educator-researcher cross dialog definition of what we mean when we talk about wellness. The domains that popped up are mind, body, spirit, emotion. And really in kind of three areas. One is the inner self. So the mind, body, spirit and emotion in the individual should be well, and if it’s not there should be focus on healing. Because as they say hurt people hurt people. But there’s a second sentence, right, that is not said enough in this society which is the other side of that coin. And the other side of that coin is healed people heal people. When you get medicine, you have medicine.
So the project of healing the inner self is also the project of healing the micro ecosystem and the broader meta ecosystem of our communities and societies. The second kind of strand is interpersonal. So how young people interact with each other, how young people interact with adults, how adults interact with adults, how the community interacts with the school. All of those are the interpersonal elements of wellness. And then the third element is interconnectedness. So this is the relationship to the natural world, to animals, to the ecosystem that is currently banging back so hard on us. So we talked about the pandemic. We didn’t mention the fact that we’re getting torrential rains and wildfires and schools are having to deal with all of this too.
Chris Riback: Tremendous devastation and human loss. Yes. On top of the pandemic. Absolutely.
Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: Right. So if we’re going to deal with all this stuff, with global climate change, with health pandemics, with white supremacy, structural racism, radicalized economic inequality, all of which are in our face right now full force, if we’re going to deal with that, from my perspective the single best possibility to deal with it in a way that is actually sustainable is to deal with it with our children in our schools.
Chris Riback: That’s the place.
Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: That’s the place. Because we come up with so many adult solutions. But because they’re not embedded in the material experience and conditions of children, then once those adults age out, we’re right back to having to tackle these problems. But if we say no, this is the purpose of public schools, this is what we need in a pluralistic, multiracial democracy. We need young people, not that are just prepared for college and career but young people that are actually prepared to participate civically, critically in a pluralistic, multiracial democracy that is well. We spend, estimates are as high as 100 times as much on healthcare as the next closest nation. Because when do you need healthcare? When you’re sick.
Chris Riback: Well, that’s when we give it is when we’re sick. There’s the whole discussion around healthcare and how much is given once we’re sick as opposed to giving the medicine before we’re sick.
Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: Right. It’s reactive. It’s not about wellness. And all of those elements of wellness have to be curated and developed foundationally in human development which means that you’ve got to do that with young people. So just imagine a world, imagine a society where every young person for eight hours a day for 13 consecutive years walks into an institution whose fundamental promise and premise is their wellness. Now, you can teach every single state standard in every single state with a myopic focus on wellness. I can teach you reading with a focus on wellness. I can teach you math, PE, science, STEM, music, art, anything you want. The structure and the way in which we’re kind of processing what we do in schools doesn’t necessarily need to change. What needs to change is the why. Why are we having children read? Why are we having children learn times tables? And if the purpose there is to say, so that you are well in your mind, in your body, in your spirit, in your emotion then to me that’s a project that guarantees thriving communities and a thriving society. And anything short of that guarantees exactly what we have. So if we’re good with what we have, cool, carry on.
Chris Riback: Nothing for you to do then. Then you’ve got new work to look for.
Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: Exactly. Every empire in the history of the world has failed. And if we are to be something other than a recurring history, this may very well be the moment where we have to have that conversation with ourselves as a society in the mirror and say that this center cannot hold. And we’re coming apart and we are careening towards a cliff. And I’m not a doomsday-er at all. I am imminently hopeful.
Chris Riback: You’re an optimist?
Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: No. Cornel West makes this really important distinction between optimism and hope. He says … West says, “As a Black man in America I’ve never had an optimistic day in my life.” Because optimism is when you look at the existing conditions and data and you believe that things will get better. Hope is when you look at the existing conditions and data and you believe things will get better anyway. So I’m hopeful, and I’m hopeful primarily because I’m around young people and educators all the time. It’s instructive that young people show up. Everybody should have to attend kindergarten day one every year just as a reminder.
Chris Riback: And see what goes on.
Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: Just as a reminder about how our babies show up. They show up so full of joy, intrigue, interest, wondering and 13 years later we have to chokehold them to get them into school. That is such an indictment of that institution. What happens?
Chris Riback: That is such a painful narrative.
Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: What are we doing where we just crush all of that wonderment out of our children under the auspices that we’re preparing them for adulthood? That we’re preparing them for the economy. Maybe the best example of this, the double speak that I see happening is this story. I was working with this group of superintendents. Some of them really big districts and then some medium and smaller sized districts. Anyway, they had brought me in to have some conversations with them about equity. And I kind of paused the conversation in mid-stream and I said, “I’m going to give you all a forced choice survey right now to figure out where we want to go with this conversation. And it’s going to be a really simple survey. It’s going to be one question.” And when you answer it I don’t want you to think about the students in your district. I want you to think about your own children. And if you don’t have children, then just pretend. How would you answer this question for your own children?
“So here’s the question: At the end of the school year your children will score out in one of two ways. Option A is that they score in the 90th percentile on all state and national testing and they score in the bottom quartile for indicators of youth wellness. Or your children can score in the 90th percentile for indicators of youth wellness but they will score in the bottom quartile for all state and national tests. How many of you choose option one?” Nobody. “How many of you choose option two?” All of them except for the recalcitrant ones that are like, “I’m not voting. I get what you’re trying to do.”
Chris Riback: You can’t force choice me.
Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: Exactly. I’m a superintendent. And I said, “Good. Me too. So cool. How do you measure that in your districts?” And exactly. They all shook their heads.
Chris Riback: Yes.
Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: And some of them were like, “We use the healthy kids survey.” And I was like, “Okay, that’s not bad. But the healthy kids survey doesn’t give you granular level data. It does not give you any insight into how an individual child is experiencing wellness or not.” So that’s where I want to take our conversation. We measure what matters in schools. Angela Duckworth told me once that we measure what we treasure. So if you look at what schools are measuring it’s like looking at a budget. When you look at a budget you see priorities.
Chris Riback: Those are the priorities.
Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: If you want to see priorities in schools, look at what gets measured. And the people that understand this most profoundly are the children. So we have all the right rhetoric. This is a family. We love you. This is a community. We care about you. But at the end of the day, kids know that as long as I score well on these tests you’re good with me no matter what’s happening in my life.
Chris Riback: You were talking about where we are right now and head space and our positioning to be able to bring kids to that point of wellness. And you talked about all the things that are the current obstacles. You talked about the pandemic. You talked about climate change. Those are very, very tangible to so many. We see it on the news every day. You also talked about racism, and we see that a lot every day. But I’d love to understand from you directly, how does racism manifest itself in schools?
Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: Well, the very design of our public school system is racist. Anybody who knows the history of public schools knows that it’s not defacto, it’s by design. And so another example or metaphor that I tend to use with folks is I ask them, “How many of you own a home?” And then I say, “Okay, well, those of you that own a home, when you bought the home what was the first thing you had inspected?” And they all say the foundation. And I say, “Oh okay, why not the roof, why not the double pane windows, why not the state of the art kitchen, why not the flooring?” And the obvious answer is because if you got all those nice trappings but your foundation is not solid it’s all coming in on itself. And I think that metaphor extends neatly to schools. If we’re going to do this purpose work then we have to … Malcolm X said once, “Of all the forms of study the one that’s most likely to reward your efforts is the study of history. Because the truth is lying there.”
So if you study the history of public schools, what’s going on is not confusing at all. It’s like oh, that makes total sense. This is exactly what this project was intended to do. Ernest Morrell and I wrote a book together many years ago when we were teaching in Oakland. And in the first chapter one of the positions that we take up is that what if we approach this problem of rethinking public schools by starting with the position that public schools are not failing? That they’re doing exactly what they’re designed to do. And how would that change the way in which we tackled the problem? My mother who’s 92 has for as long as I remember told me, “Boy, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” And I think we keep trying to fix schools. And then that influences the way in which we approach the work from the very beginning. But if we looked at schools and we said actually schools are doing exactly what they’re designed to do, which means that we need to change what they’re designed to do if we’re going to change anything. And that means we’ve got to get foundational. The foundation of public schools in this nation is rotten. It is a part of the white supremacist, classist, patriarchal, heteronormative, xenophobic project of the United States.
That’s the real value of the kind of historical investigation is that when you look at the historical documents you see they didn’t code it. They didn’t code it, and they didn’t coat it. The purpose was completely transparent. And then you say oh, now I understand why school starts at 8:00 a.m. Even though all of the research suggests that’s really bad for children.
Chris Riback: All of the research.
Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: But then you understand why. Oh, this was the project of business. This was a project of industrial growth. Schools were designed to prepare workers, to sort them out. Not if you were going to be a worker, but what kind of worker were you going to be. And if you weren’t going to function well in a factory environment, we had 13 years of data on you to show that you weren’t. And we coded you and coated you with a preparation for other kinds of labor or the penal system. And so this all sounds very nefarious, and it is. It is. And I think this country has so much trouble with telling the damn truth. There is no reasonable argument or evidence that schools are a public good as they’re currently designed. There’s no evidence to suggest that the history of public schools was about creating a pluralistic, multiracial democracy. Zero.
In fact, what all the evidence clearly indicates is that everything about the way we’ve designed schools, the school day, the splitting up of children by age, the under resourcing, the de-skilling of teachers, the measuring, all the lagging indicators and ignoring all the leading indicators, all of that is a matter of fact as a component of a historical trajectory. It is what is in the foundation. And what we start doing is we start now adding things on top of that rotten foundation. New desks. New kinds of electronic white boards.
Chris Riback: New smart board. Exactly. We see it in the news. We see it in the discussions. We see it, many of us, in our own school districts — the vitriol, the anger, the commentary, the discussion, the debate around critical race theory. Why do you think CRT is misunderstood and maligned and by whom?
Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: Well, I think CRT is misunderstood and maligned, because we’ve never actually taught in our public school system, let alone our private school system, any real material meaningful discussion about race. And so you have a society that is founded on a double genocide. We are the only industrialized nation in the history of the world to have committed two genocides against African people and against indigenous people.
Chris Riback: You can read the history.
Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: The question is, what are we going to do about it? Are we going to tell the truth about how this society was founded, what our foundation is? And there’s lots more in the foundation. But those two massive fissures in the foundation, those huge cracks are undoing all of the good stuff. Because if you keep good stuff inside of a faulty foundation, it all comes in on itself. So repair is due, atonement is due. And that has to begin with us telling the truth to our children in schools about the history of race, the history of racism, the history of white supremacy in this nation. And I think that one of the reason that people are resistant to do it, even those people that think it’s important, is because the way we design schools is that the teacher has to have the answers. The textbook has to have the answers. So we’re scared to talk about it because kids then ask questions. Because kids are often zero filter. They just get to the heart of the matter.
And instead of going on a journey with our children and being part of a genuine spirit of wondering and believing that our children are our best shot to get us out of this … And the only way they’re going to get us out of this is if we start asking better questions. If school becomes about actually inquiry into the real material social political economic challenges that are facing our nation and facing our communities. And then creating a structure of inquiry and wondering and study and investigation about what might we be able to do about this? And then 13 years later we’re going to have incredible conversations, because kids are going to be fluent in the conversation about race, about white supremacy, about the history of the nation. And they can come down wherever they want. I certainly want my sons to come down with a particular kind of sense and sense and sensibility. But I can’t dictate that. What I can dictate is the kinds of questions that I’m preparing them to be able to investigate. And I think that’s why people are so spooked by CRT is because they literally don’t have the vocabulary to be able to have a meaningful conversation about race.
Chris Riback: Can we do that? Can we have that conversation, that meaningful conversation if schools are as segregated as they often are?
Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: Yes. I think we can. I think that they get a lot more fruitful when they’re less segregated. But I also feel like there’s a space where it’s important that white folks are talking about this amongst white folks. And that people of color are talking about it amongst people of color. I think if you really are fluent … And that’s a total binary. It’s obviously much more complicated than that. But what happens when you become fluent in something is that you start seeking out other fluencies that expand your fluency. So I think we’re much more likely to have healthy, racially complex communities and discussions. You start where you are.
Chris Riback: Do you need to be fluent or do you need to have at least some familiarity with the vocabulary?
Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: I mean, it’s an arc of development that yes, you need to be fluent. But would we say no, you don’t need to be fluent in any lang … No. You need to be fluent. But you have to start somewhere. Okay?
Chris Riback: Yes.
Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: And I think that’s the place where people get spooked. Because it’s not safe to start. And we’ve set that condition in schools. We have normed the silence around suffering in schools. I don’t care who your parents are. You are socialized in school to understand that you compartmentalize discussions of suffering. And until we bust those boundaries and say that no, that is what it means to be learned … That is another Cornel West-ian framework that I think is apropos here is he distinguishes between intelligence and intellect. And what we do in schools is intelligence, which he calls a manipulative factor. We manipulate what we decide is evidence of intelligence. But intellect, he says, is the evaluation of the evaluation. An examination of all the hidden presupposed truths, the tacit assumptions. Everything is up for discussion … That’s what it means to develop intellectuals. We don’t have a society of intellectuals because we have not invested in intellectualism in schools. Schools are about social reproduction. They’re not about change. They’re not about growth. And young people are down for that. They are so down for that. Right?
Chris Riback: Yes.
Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: It’s the grown folks that freak out. Because I think they think … Like the affective filter goes up. It’s like if you can’t dance and suddenly you’re put in a position where you have to dance, you really can’t dance. And it’s neurological. You literally have a biochemical reaction to “I know I can’t dance”. So I think that where I want us to get is to say wherever you are on this arc of development, this so-called fluency, is cool. You’re good. Anybody who teaches you to hate yourself is the devil. You can’t be in a position where “I’m not good enough” and then be a learner. We’ve got to be okay with where we are. And you can’t stay there. Wherever you are is cool. You just can’t stay there. And that is differentiated instruction. That is the gold standard of good teaching. Is that you baseline. You don’t expect everybody to be at the same place at the same time. It’s absurd. And it’s ignorant. It denies everything we know about human development.
So just be cool with it. We are where we are and we’re not good at it and that’s okay. But we can’t stay there. And that’s the issue that I have with all of this blowback around CRT is that you’re not even trying to grow. You’re not even trying to address the legacy of racism and white supremacy. You’re not even trying. And the crazy thing is that people of color are still willing to stay in it. They’re still willing to show up and have the conversations and carry this absurd burden over and over and over and over again. What a beautiful humanity that exists in people of color in racist societies. What a beautiful humanity that exists in women in patriarchal societies. And how do we honor that and respect that? Well, you honor and respect that by being committed to grow and being committed to telling the truth and being okay with the fact that you don’t have to have all the answers and in fact, you can’t because you’re so nascent in this learning. And I think the real rub here is that it’s the people with power and the people with very little power that are hanging on because they believe that if they step into that water they’ll drown.
Chris Riback: It’s dangerous water. It’s dangerous water, man.
Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: Yes. But there’s way more sharks in the water that we’ve curated and cultivated. And those sharks are showing up now in ways where the suffering is just exponentially higher. And we’re careening toward this cliff. And there is a moment at which … When your vehicle is careening towards the edge of a cliff, there is a moment at which it doesn’t matter if you brake anymore.
Chris Riback: Your momentum’s going to take you.
Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: And that is my worry. That we will wait too long to slam on the brakes.
Chris Riback: So maybe one way to slam on the brakes. I have heard you talk about community responsiveness as opposed to cultural responsiveness. What is that? Why do you advocate for one over the other?
Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: One of the big challenges in our field is the knowing-doing gap. When we began to try to apply the concept of cultural responsiveness or culturally sustaining, it was in the ’90s and the 2000s coming out of the ’80s. And the ’80s was the big multicultural education movement. Was really the first time that we started talking about race and culture in curriculum. And so what I have seen happen is that culture became a proxy for race. And then in the typical pattern of white supremacy, then race became essentialized.
So it was like, oh, Gloria (Ladson-Billings) wrote this book, Dreamkeepers, and she was looking at all these effective teachers of Black children and was really trying to understand why are these teachers so effective when so many of the other teachers are not? What is it they’re doing? What can we say about those practices? And then people took that work and put it on the ground and ignored all the nuance and complexity of community. And they said, “Oh, I have Black kids.” And Gloria Ladson-Billings said if you do this with Black kids it’ll work. And we saw the same thing in multicultural ed. It was like oh, Black kids aren’t doing well in school because they don’t get to read any Black authors. So let’s give them the autobiography of Malcolm X and then they’ll be really excited about school. And of course, they weren’t any more excited about school. In fact, sometimes they even hated school even more because they didn’t change the pedagogy.
Because curriculum you can design without children and community present. You can do it in the boardroom, you can do it in the teachers’ lounge with a bunch of people who look like you, think like you, and talk like you. And then when Black and brown kids started doing worse in school despite the multicultural education movement, then the logic became, see, it’s not us, it’s them. I mean, we gave them what they were asking for. And then the same thing started happening with culturally relevant teaching, which was we started essentializing. So it’s like oh, this program worked with Latino kids in San Antonio and I have Latino kids in east LA. Let me just carbon copy what we do because all Latino kids are the same. And of course-
Chris Riback: Turns out.
Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: This has not shifted engagement, achievement, outcome at all because it’s not actually addressing culture. So race and ethnicity are a component of culture, but so is youth. You ever hear of a youth culture? So age, gender, sexual identity, community, zip code. All of those are what it means to be culturally responsive. So what we started at Community Responsive Education, we started centering this idea of community. Because if you are community responsive, you have to be culturally responsive. But you have to understand that culture is always situated inside of community. So the real work is to first embed yourself in the community where you’re serving. To be a learner. To be humble. I’ve often said that the best teachers I’ve ever been around are ethnographers of the communities they serve. And via that ethnography, via that real inquiry into and connection and co-elaboration with community. Then you can start designing curricula and pedagogy that is responsive to the actual needs, interests, challenges, problems, wonderings, hopes, dreams of the community that you serve. And it also then challenges schools to say that you can’t have a fixed curriculum because communities are dynamic. They’re constantly shifting and changing. Which means that we’ve got to create the space for teachers and schools to be creative around their curriculum.
And we’ve got to loose ourselves from these corporate textbook factories that, again, there’s zero evidence that those are actually engaging and meaningful for children and that they ever could be. Because they’re not actually situated in the material conditions of an individual child or a school community’s real life. So it’s possible. I know it’s possible, A, because I’ve done it, B, because I work with teachers all over the country that do it all the time. But the problem is it’s all on sweat equity and on their back.
Chris Riback: Yes.
Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: And this is why we’re losing so many of those teachers. Because we are a field that has totally failed to invest in ingenuity, in creativity, and in innovation.
Chris Riback: So let me ask you about that investment about creativity, innovation. This’ll tie as well to community and a community that you are near. You mentioned the word design just a moment ago. Research and design, R&D. I assume that right now you’re in east Oakland. Is that right? Is that where you’re-
Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: Yes.
Chris Riback: Right. And there’s an area super close to where you are. You may have heard of it. Silicon Valley. And there’s just a little bit of R&D that goes on in Silicon Valley. What have you observed about Silicon Valley’s relationship to failure and how would you like to see some of that approach to R&D applied to education R&D?
Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: Well, yes. Bullseye. It’s particularly insulting for me and people that live in our surrounding community, this dilemma around innovation in schools, because of … Exactly. Because we’re so close to Silicon Valley, where if you’re not failing you’re not trying. One of their biggest budget lines in all these companies is R&D. And the reason for that is because they know that the greatest innovations, the greatest product development, the greatest response to their clients is in their ability to keep testing new things and having it blow up on them. But what they do that schools don’t do is that they have a structure for learning from failure. And schools are punished for failing. So because schools are punished for failing, they hide their failures. They try to cover them up. So there’s zero learning from the failures. It’s pushed the failure out. One of my maestro’s name is Jerry Tello. He runs the National Compadres Network. And he says that wounded children speak the most truth and we resent them for it.
So the wounded child is teaching us so much about how schools are designed to fail those that need them the most. And what we do with that child is we punish them and exclude them because they’re peeling back the Dunbar’s mask. They’re taking the mask off school and they’re saying to us with an unvarnished truth that you are harming me. You have zero interest in my wellbeing. Stop saying you care about me. Literally fuck you. They’re at that level. And we know … We’re in this conversation with Turnaround. So we know biochemically, physiologically, neurologically why that’s happening. They’re elevated because of their toxic stress. But what we’re not seeing is the value in that. We’re not seeing the instructiveness of that because we cannot stomach failure. We’re allergic to it in schools. And for that reason, we fail constantly. Whereas, the culture in Silicon Valley and in other “growth industries,” it’s not that they want to fail. I mean, they do want to fail, but I think the key learning here is that they create a structure around failure so that it’s not failure. Failure is learning. They’re synonymous.
Chris Riback: And fail fast ,so you can learn faster. You can get more quickly. You can apply what you learn from the failure.
Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: Absolutely. But schools are not set up to do that in any way, shape, form, or fashion. And you can start with the budget. Find me a school, find me a district who has any R&D-baked line in their budget. Let alone a significant amount. And that’s not schools’ fault. That’s the nation’s fault. We have turned to universities and think tanks and philanthropy to fund R&D for schools.
Chris Riback: I want to close by asking if you happen to know a poem. You might even know it by heart. And if you don’t, I’m happy to read it for you. It’s called The Rose That Grew from Concrete. You’ve heard of it?
Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: Yes.
Chris Riback: Yes. Do you happen to know it by heart? If not, I’ll read it. I don’t want to put you on the spot. I’ve got it here in front of me.
Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: I know my own version of it by heart, but go ahead.
Chris Riback: The Rose That Grew from Concrete: “Did you hear about the rose that grew from a crack in the concrete? Proving nature’s law is wrong, it learned to walk without having feet. Funny it seems, but by keeping its dreams, it learned to breathe fresh air. Long live the rose that grew from concrete when no one else ever cared.”
What do you hear when you hear that poem?
Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: It’s the metaphor for the wounded child. And the concrete is all of the layers of toxic stress that young people are exposed to as a result of the radicalized inequities in our society. The kind of suffering that we see in so many young people is not natural. It’s not natural to the human condition. It’s unnatural. And that’s why their bodies have … They get out of their stasis. They get out of who they really are. That’s what happens when you get wounded and when it’s unrelenting. That’s the concrete. And when you think about concrete, it is perhaps the worst possible environment in which something can attempt to grow. It’s devoid of light. It’s devoid of key nutrients. It’s devoid of water. And on top of all that, it’s toxic. The chemicals in the concrete toxify the soil. And yet, you can walk outside your house right now and find life finding its way through.
And that’s what it is happening for so many of our vulnerable youth is that they’re not just being asked to show up to school and pay attention and be a good student and focus and do their homework. They’re being asked to do that while having to fight through concrete just to get basic human needs. Food, water, shelter, clothing. The base of Maslow’s so-called Hierarchy of Needs is under threat for them every day. And we’re asking them to do higher order stuff and then adding to the concrete when they don’t. So we’re layering on new concrete. But what I appreciate about Tupac’s [Shakur] metaphor and the reason why I think young people are so drawn to that concept of the rose that grew from concrete is because what he says in other versions of it. He says that I see your damaged petals, but I also see your tenacity and your will to reach the sun. And that’s an adult choice. When children show up, the wounded ones, the vulnerable ones, we make a choice as grown-ups about what we see. Because they do have damaged petals because they’re growing in concrete. So if we focus on their damaged petals then that becomes how we move and think about them and with them and against them.
But if we focus on their tenacity and their will to reach the sun, when you think about what it actually takes to walk a war zone just to get to school, when you think about what it takes to show up food deprived, clothing deprived, safety deprived … And I don’t just mean physical safety. I mean all the forms of safety. When you find the tenacity and the will to show up to school in a society that teaches you to hate yourself for the color of your skin and the texture of your hair, the language that your parents speak, the neighborhood that you come from, and you still show up?! How do we not have institutions that see that as the most important ingredient for intellectual development? Why are we talking about grit? The only people who talk about grit are the people who never had to have grit. The kind of grit it takes to grow up in a nation state that from its inception has treated you as less than human, whose peace officers are constantly executing your people on the streets, who lynched you, who deprived you of basic human decency, to not understand that I don’t need you to talk to me about grit. I need you to have grit. I need you to have grit that matches the grit of Black and indigenous people in this nation.
That’s what I need. Jeff Duncan-Andrade as a teacher, as a father, as a community member, I need to have the grit that mirrors the kind of grit I see in Black and indigenous children. And that’s why I’ve said that that’s the focus for schools. That’s the only conversation I want to hear in schools is how is this school going to guarantee that Black and indigenous children have a platinum level experience? Whatever that means. Because if Black and indigenous children show up every day in schools and are well, every kid there is going to be well. Because we’ve inverted it finally so that those who have the least get the most. And those who have the most get the least. And I think that’s the rub. That’s why … I don’t know if you all have read The Sum of Us, but that book I think is so important because what she reveals in that book is that it’s not a zero sum game. If you give to Black and indigenous children you’re not taking away from white children. You’re not taking away from other children. You’re actually giving to them too. Because when we have a truly well, pluralistic, multiracial democracy all boats rise.
And you can’t have that, you cannot have that without paying the debt that is due for the hundreds and hundreds of years where we did not tell the truth, where we did not atone for all the harm that we’ve done. And now we know with medical certainty what our ancestors and our elders have been saying all along, which is that slavery and genocide is not over. That it’s coded in our bodies. That level of toxicity literally alters your DNA. And if your DNA is altered that means you pass it generationally. All debts come due and they will be paid at some point or another. And my hope, my dream, my sincere wish, and my belief is that if we can wrap our heads and our arms and our hearts around that and rethink, redesign, repurpose schools with that intention, saying what would it mean for us every single day to make sure that our Black and our indigenous children are well, seen, loved, cared for, then we’ll be all right. We’ll be better than all right. We’ll be thriving in ways that we never imagined was possible.
And I don’t look very much further than my own children and the children that they’re in school with every day to garner the grit and the courage and the hope to keep trying. I certainly do not have it all figured out but when I start wondering about what my purpose is, I start looking for cracks in the concrete, and I start thinking about how do I drill myself down into that crack, hold it open a little wider so that more water, more light can get down there. Because I don’t think that I’m going to be the one that unlocks it. Pac said this too. He said, “I don’t believe that I’m going to change the world but I guarantee you I’ll spark the mind that does.” And I don’t know that I can make that guarantee. I don’t know if I’m that good of a teacher. But I do believe that if that is the person of schools, to really spark those minds and to know that what’s going to save us is likely going to come from communities that we have destroyed for years and years and years. And if that’s the project, to hold open the concrete so that those young people can bloom, it won’t be long before the concrete is replaced by a rose garden.
And we won’t be talking about individual roses, the success story. We’ll be talking about transformation of the unnatural circumstances to something that has true beauty and is worthy of the kind of rhetoric that this society has been so willing to constantly dance around without ever creating the reality that matches the rhetoric.
Chris Riback: Well, I know that you are every day pouring yourself into those cracks between the concrete. And I know you may not seek to take credit for it, but there likely have been just a couple of roses who have been given the opportunity to bloom and who knows, maybe there’s even a garden growing in east Oakland — and maybe it’ll grow beyond east Oakland as your work and the work of others continues. Dr. Duncan-Andrade — Jeff — thank you. Thank you for your time, thank you for the work, and thank you for the conversation.
Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: Thank you. It was really a pleasure. Take care of yourselves.
More from Turnaround on this topic:
- Zaretta Hammond: How Teachers Can Become Personal Trainers of Cognitive Development
- Zaretta Hammond: What is Culturally-Responsive Teaching?
- Dan Cogan-Drew: Helping Students Become Agents of Their Own Learning
- P.S. 340: Getting to Know How Students Are Feeling and Functioning
- Christina Theokas, Ph.D.: The Well-Being Index
- Hal Smith: We Can’t Just Do the Same Things We’ve Always Done
- John King: Getting Back to School Safely and Better