The Canary In the Coal Mine (aka race-based achievement gap)

I have the privilege of working with many different school districts regarding Racial Equity (RE) issues, and when I do I always start by asking what their motivation is for doing Racial Equity work. Invariably they say “the race-based achievement gap” and their desire to close it. To that end they show me the many ways they have already directed funds, developed programs, and set ambitious goals for closing the gap and providing a “fair education for every student” regardless of their race. And while these efforts are laudable and very important as tools for closing the gap, they do not actually provide the necessary foundation for closing it and keeping it closed. That is because very few school districts understand that the race-based achievement gap is not the problem itself, it is a symptom of a much larger, older, more insidious and far more pervasive problem in education: institutional racism and white privilege. Now, for most school districts this is charged language and they are rarely willing to use it. In its place, more accessible terms like Racial Equity are put forth, and even though equity work does open the door to deeper conversations about access and resources, it is still no guarantee that district administration, teachers and staff, and families “get” that the race-based achievement gap is really just a symptomatic indicator of the legacy of racism…a canary in a coal mine.


Now to be clear, I am not a miner nor is anyone in my family involved in mining, so this is not something I can speak about from personal knowledge. But, as I understand it, before contemporary tools for establishing and maintaining mine safety were developed, canaries were used to determine if invisible gases were present and posing potentially fatal dangers for miners. As such, when a canary died, it was understood to be a sign that there was a serious problem in the mine and the company’s money, energy and time went into addressing the root of the problem: the deadly gas in the mine…NOT on resuscitating the canary. In a similar fashion, if we can stop seeing the race-based achievement gap as “the problem” in our schools and instead come to view it as a dying canary (the symptom that something is wrong in our schools), it follows that we would turn our attention not to the deceased canary but to that which gives rise to its demise, or in this case to institutional racism and white privilege. If the gas is dealt with, the canary lives; if institutional racism and white privilege are dealt with, the gap goes away.


Unfortunately, too many school districts spend their time trying to resuscitate the canary and completely miss that institutional racism and white privilege are what give rise to the race-based achievement gap. Now please do not misunderstand, I’m not at all saying that we should not put money, energy, and time into programs to support students of color and their families – those programs are absolutely necessary, but they must be done within the larger context of addressing institutional racism and white privilege. Not doing so is akin to constantly trying to revive the terminal canary. If, however, the presence of the gap is approached in a deeper way, the additional programs and supports serve as supportive transitional structures and will eventually (if the work to seriously address institutional racism and white privilege is solid and steady) not be necessary as the district moves toward achieving Racial Equity and educational access for all students.


I was using this general analogy in a training session the other day, and a participant continued the example this way: “So, if the canary is the gap, then the miners are the students and families affected by the gas.” That seemed reasonable to me and so I affirmed their comment. And then they continued, “But, (because of racism and white privilege) not all students and families are affected the same way…some families have no masks and no other supports and so have to take the full brunt of the gas and its affects (racism). Other families have varying degrees of masks and other protections, some to the point of being able to function perfectly well in the mine (white privilege).” And what ensued after this participant’s comment was a deep and thoughtful conversation about how white privilege in our schools is literally saving the lives of white students while the existence of institutional racism is literally poisoning and killing our students of color. By using this analogy, the impacts of race institutional racism and white privilege became just that much more clear to these folks and they could more easily see that this was not at all about “helping students of color do better on our tests”, but about something much deeper, and truly deadly if unchecked.


To be sure, moving to deal with the gas in the mine is a massive undertaking and is met with considerable resistance by white, middle class families who perceive this as nothing but a net loss for them and their children and therefore fight hard to maintain the status quo. In her seminal piece “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”, Peggy McIntosh refers to white privilege as an invisible set of assets that she was actively taught not to see. Building on this, Ruth Ann Olson makes a similar list of white privileges in U.S. education. In both pieces, the privileges can be boiled down to that which makes living more possible, thriving more likely, and advantages inevitable, while its opposite are the barriers that deny equitable access, equitable opportunities, and the chance to thrive and be successful in this society. Because of the intensity of this system and the backlash of white, middle class families, many school districts are deeply afraid of wading into RE work. And yet if we remember why we are in education and connect that to our most deeply help values as a society, what other choice is there? How can we possibly say that all children in this country have equal access to education when some have the latest gas mask technology at their disposal and others have no protections in the mine at all? Clearly, this is not a question of “programs or strategies”, but rather a profoundly moral question and as such demands that the predominantly white P-12 administrators and teachers in this country have the courage to face the backlash, the commitment to address institutional racism and white privilege, and a stead-fast vision of what this society can and will become if we make education truly available for every single child. Canary saved.

© 2013 Hackman Consulting Group – Do not reproduce part or all without permission.