Zero Tolerance under the Obama Administration

Christopher G. Robbins is an assistant professor in Social Foundations of Education at Eastern Michigan University who explores the conditions within public education and the outside forces that shape and impinge on education. Robbins also considers the impact and fairness of the conditions on the students, especially the most marginalized students in society.

Education is touted as field where the hardest working and most talented students will rise to the top. Examining this, Robbins with Joe Bishop wrote “Accountability Legerdemain and the Intensification of Inequality.” The writers questioned the supposed meritocracy within education by noting the inequality of conditions among students.

Robbins explores the inequality of conditions further in his book Expelling Hope: The Assault on Youth and the Militarization of Schooling (SUNY: 2008). ((See review)) Robbins raises consciousness over the direction neoliberals and neoconservatives are steering education – a direction that further marginalizes and excludes the poor and people of color.

At the end of George Bush’s term, the economic devastation wrought by the Bush administration’s neoliberal policies grabbed headlines. The 2008 election saw a shift from George Bush, a president of expelling hope, to Barack Obama, a president who audaciously encourages hope. I interviewed Robbins by email about what this means for the policy of zero tolerance within education.

Kim Petersen: In your article “Accountability Legerdemain and the Intensification of Inequality,” you wrote of the illusion of a meritocracy and the unfairness of standardized tests. One solution you looked at was an educational handicapping index. Within this index was a proposed teacher quality index. I wonder how this could be objective? Do not teachers have different conditions under which they became teachers and under which they operate as teachers? So shouldn’t there also be a handicapping index in the determination of a teacher’s quality?

Christopher Robbins: My co-author and I provided the idea of a handicapping index as only a slight attempt at showing one type of mechanism by which the standardization process and the push for national outcomes could be made moderately fairer, given the wildly different community contexts in which schools operate, teachers (attempt to) teach, and students (attempt to) learn. Notice I said “fairer,” not “objective.” At some level, none of the processes and practices associated with “accountability” can be objective because the proposed or intended outcomes, and the motivations driving the definition of certain outcomes, that “accountability” processes are to meet are patently non-objective. These outcomes are defined largely by players outside of public schools, and these players–for instance, groups like the Business Roundtable, National School Boards Association, and the National Governors’ Association and other hardly social justice-minded groups that have come out in early support of national standards –have vested and more often than not concentrated interests in defining, solidifying, and legitimating outcomes that narrowly serve their interests in producing numerate and minimally literate workers who will be compliant, or in Foucault’s terms “docile,” having basic skills and dispositions amenable to being shaped and sharpened by employers. It is quite possible that teachers, students, parents, and their wider communities might have some interests in the definition and achievement of some outcomes that overlap with those preferred by the corporate or government communities. Yet, this is something we cannot really know since teachers, students, parents, or even researchers, who work with teachers, students, and parents, haven’t typically been prominent contributors to National Governors’ Association or Business Roundtable meetings. The increased emphases on technical, as opposed to critical, literacy and math, and the woefully inadequate, if not non-existent, emphasis put on civic education and the social sciences that have been attendant to No Child Left Behind (the current avatar of the accountability movement) were not incidental or “unintended” consequences of recent accountability efforts. Further, since these groups often operate on crass cost-efficiency models, outcomes and the processes involved in meeting them must be both easily manipulated and measurable in “objective” or “scientific” ways that rely on the least amount of labor as possible. It is costly and difficult to measure students’ interpretations of and engagement with political events or their ability to use “traditional” academic skills to address pressing community problems of interest to them. But beyond being costly and difficult to measure, these sorts of possible educational outcomes are simply anathema to the interests of the various groups that are behind the “accountability” movement. What’s more, as scholars as varied as Paul Street, Alex Molnar, Kenneth Saltman, and David Berliner and Bruce Biddle have pointed out in various ways, the accountability movement and the processes associated with it are really not about achieving objectivity and transparency in formal education; they are about controlling formal education for arbitrary ends, when they are not about undermining the public school system.

I realize that I have talked around your question. The simple answer is that producing a handicapping index for teacher quality and teacher training, much like the handicapping index for measuring student “achievement,” would not be objective. It could give the illusion of objectivity. Because of having apprehensions about the value of such a positivist understanding of objectivity and the potential mis/uses to which it could be put, we would be wary of applying this handicapping index to teacher quality. And, really, the larger points we were making in that short paper concerned two things: the civic purposes of public schools and the longstanding existence of social inequality. How can, and how does, “accountability” account for these things?

Yet, there is another issue involved here. My co-author and I also used the handicapping index example as a way to point to the absurdity and waste of these standardization attempts. To do standardization in even a remotely fair way would cost incredible amounts of money and take considerable amounts of intellectual and social energy, and this would achieve what? One of the effects of these processes would be the further delimiting or closing of educational and social possibilities. Paulo Freire, Roger Simon, and Henry Giroux have written eloquently and prolifically about education being about possibility. If education is not about the opening of self- and social possibilities and alternative ways of being in the world, then what is it about? In a different vein, John Dewey talked about democracy as being creative democracy, one that is continually unfinished, open to new questions, capable of responding to adversity and rapid change in ways that are fair and allow for people to have as much control as possible over the basic affairs that govern their everyday lives. He was also steadfast in his beliefs about pedagogical practices being produced and elaborated in ways that would allow for such a democracy to come into being by providing agents, or citizens, with opportunities to practice and develop the skills and produce relationships capable of supporting such a democracy. Such a view puts a high premium on capacious educational practices—inside and outside of schools. If most, if not all, of the outcomes of and questions about formal education are given, heteronomously, in advance, possibility is significantly reduced. If our energies and relationships are diverted to controlling, rather than opening, educational practices and getting lost in the euphoria of statistical orgies that will allegedly represent our efforts in “objective” ways, then defining, articulating, and working toward other possibilities will become extremely difficult.

KP: You wrote Expelling Hope: The Assault on Youth and the Militarization of Schooling while George Bush was president. In this book you wrote that a culture of punishment attendant to zero tolerance society was denying a section of American youth the right to an education, especially poor youth and youth of color. Now that Barack Obama, a president of color, sits in the Whitehouse, do you see any indications of change in the zero tolerance policy?

CR: Yes, I see the policy and its attendant practices possibly becoming further normalized. What with all the subterfuge about both his candidacy and presidency being evidence about the existence of colorblindness in the U.S., a racial state from top to bottom, people might have more reason to say, “Black kids are disproportionately kicked out of school because they are dangerous or disruptive. This is not about racism. We have a Black president after all, don’t we?” and then tautologically point to the exclusion rates as proof rather than have impetus to point to a racial logic built into the policy of zero tolerance, the culture of schooling, and the structure of U.S. society. When zero tolerance was passed as part of the Gun Free Schools Act (1994), government officials (and their constituents) readily supported it because it was seen as a response to an “urban” (read: Black) problem that was threatening suburban whites. We would do well to remember that more than 1 in 2 whites who voted casted their votes for someone other than Obama. Many of these people work in or for schools, or they have children in schools, or they sit on school boards. Why or how would Obama being president immediately or automatically change the ways these people interpret the behaviors of certain children and youth?

We would also do well to look at his appointment to the position of Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. Duncan was the CEO of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) at a time when racial disproportionality in both school exclusions and the criminalization and militarization of schools in CPS did not decrease, but stayed the same or increased. As I pointed out in a footnote in my book, “zero tolerance” could be seen as the logic that underpinned Bush’s unprecedented foreign policy of pre-emptive strikes; under the current administration, warfare has increased, not decreased, in places that are coded as racially other, perpetuating a war that A. Sivanandan has defined as a “xeno-racist” war, a war that is framed and conducted in ways that vacillate between xenophobic and racist motivations and appeals. If we see evidence of “zero tolerance” at play in the highest reaches of foreign policy and obviously costly military affairs, why would we see a waning of zero tolerance at lower levels of society? What’s more, if we look at the issue of zero tolerance in wider terms, we might see connections between ongoing militarization and zero tolerance in public schools. Study after study shows that zero tolerance is most frequently applied to non-violent social behaviors in schools and districts that are, in policyspeak, “economically distressed.” Many authors point to larger class sizes, lack of curricular resources, and under-qualified teachers as factors involved in the disproportionate use of zero tolerance in schools serving communities marginalized by class and color. As we continue to allocate roughly ten times more to defense spending than we do to education spending, it becomes increasingly difficult to undo the underlying conditions that either inform disruptive behavior or encourage teachers and school officials to almost automatically resort to zero tolerance as the solution to the symptoms of deep social and economic problems in their schools and communities. Combine these factors with the renewal of NCLB and its hyper-focus on testing and “annual yearly progress,” something on which certain groups or types of students have been perceived as a drag, and we will continue to see the corrosive effects of zero tolerance in the disproportionate exclusion of poor students and students of color from public schools.

At the same time, there is much more to the picture. GFSA (1994) was/is defined in relatively inane ways. This, the federal version of zero tolerance, was/is defined in fairly straightforward terms that merely inscribed in law policies that most, if not all, schools had had in place for years: students cannot possess firearms, weapons (or drugs) in school or on school transports, without being met with exclusion. The problem is that because public schooling is defined as a states’ rights issue, states crafted policies that not only maintained, by legal fiat, the language of the federal policy, but they also expanded on the language. The process then occurred again at the district/school level, which was then only propounded by educational officials’ mis/comprehension of the local/state/federal policy and their varying interpretations of student behaviors. Zero tolerance is applied with almost as much zeal to weapons possession as it is to asthma inhalers, midriff shirts, and do-rags in many districts. So, on this level, Obama is really ancillary at best to efforts at reducing the power and pervasiveness of zero tolerance in public schools. Zero tolerance has become routinized in particular ways at the level of culture and everyday school politics. This is where work on zero tolerance needs to take place.

KP: Do you see any change in the policy of color blindness?

CR: Unfortunately, my hopes in this regard are tempered. On the one hand, the image of a president of color in a racial state is promising. If anything, it is potential evidence of possible subterranean shifting at work in culture and politics. On the other hand, a president of color in a racial state is faced with practical political challenges. How does such a president advance progressive policy, which ostensibly would help communities of color, without being tagged for advancing the interests of his “race?” Just because the U.S. has a president of color, does that mean, despite the whiff of transformative interests found in his rhetoric, he or his administration is actually progressive? Did voters and do citizens have concrete, substantive evidence that this is the case, that this administration is explicitly concerned with addressing very significant problems that have been exacerbated by color blind discourse, problems like wildly disproportionate incarceration rates, drastically different infant mortality rates across racial lines, divergent employment rates, segregated schooling…?

Yet, we must be clear about how color blindness operates. Color blindness is a slippery and, in many ways now, a strong discourse. It is slippery, as Eduardo Bonilla-Silva has pointed out, because it operates in a “now you see it, now you don’t” way. A few years ago, I wrote a piece for Dissident Voice on the racial politics that ensued after Michael Richards’s (aka “Kramer’s”) racist outburst at the Laugh Factory, where he unleashed a tirade of racist vitriol reminiscent of the Jim Crow South. While such behavior is obviously reprehensible, it is not entirely unpredictable, even if it is currently infrequently seen in public spaces. However, the media’s response to this incident ignored all of the social, cultural, political, and economic evidence of a very color-conscious society and government. Somehow, the Katrina tragedy, only a year before Richards’s outburst, produced questions about whether race actually still mattered in the U.S. but, if one had taken the media’s response to Richards at face value, one would have been encouraged to think that racism was merely the aberration of a minority of deranged individuals rather than a deeply-rooted system of advantage and disadvantage built into the state, the market, and civil society. We continued to see this sort of slipperiness at play in the nomination of Sotomayor to the Supreme Court and in the confirmation hearing s that followed. After how many years of having predominantly white men sit on the court, who presumably were chosen because of their political and philosophical orientations which, in part, are the products of their cultural (and racial) capital, mainstream and reactionary media suddenly had concerns about racial ideology seeping into law because of Sotomayor’s ethnicity! So, strangely enough, this response was seen as “color blind” when pundits were obviously seeing “race” as a possible determining variable in Sotomayor’s potential deliberations. Many seemed so concerned with maintaining (the illusion of) color blindness that they felt it was necessary to focus debate about Sotomayor’s nomination on race. See, there is race, and we are concerned with it, but we’re really talking about law, not race. “Now you see it, now you don’t.”

Color blindness can be seen as a strong discourse because of the predominance it holds over public discourse on race. What’s the alternative to color blindness? Color consciousness? After almost a solid 30 years of being browbeaten with the idea that we are color blind, how fashionable or politically viable is it to be color conscious, even if some of the most pressing social, political, and economic problems in the U.S. are underpinned by racial politics? Just think, given contemporary discourse and politics surrounding race, how surreal it would seem if a candidate of any race were to run on a racial justice platform. And, when we refer back to the “concerns” about race involved in the nomination of Sotomayor, this is really a peculiar and disturbing discourse. The Supreme Court is seen as the penultimate symbol of justice in the U.S. The strength of color blind discourse in this case is its ability to frame color consciousness, one element of many involved in producing more justice in a racialized society, as something that is unfair, unjust or, seemingly in this case, worse—“un-American.”

KP: If the educational opportunities of some individuals or groups continue to be denied, what are the future ramifications for those denied and society?

CR: I recently had a conversation with a military official where this concern emerged in reference to the (disproportionate) militarization of poor and urban public schools through things like the JROTC. My concerns with exclusion, criminalization, and militarization in public schools are all informed by similar assumptions. Given the inordinate commercialization of society and the corporate stranglehold over information at this point in time, public schools, more than ever, need to be struggled over, as Ken Saltman and Henry Giroux argue, as “sites and stakes” in democracy and democratic public life. The vitality and future of democratic public life and political culture in the U.S. are seriously threatened when children and youth are denied opportunities to develop the skills, languages, and relationships central to democracy. This threat is only propounded when the skills, languages, relationships, and conditions for developing civic agency are so unevenly distributed among groups in society. I am not solipsistic about these ideas or ideals. Public schools never effectively or concertedly operated in the interests of a strong, creative, or radical democracy. However, they nonetheless always had a weak charge given to them to provide the basic skills required for participation in political processes. This was a charge given to public schools by Horace Mann, considered the founding architect of U.S. mass public schooling and hardly a radical. We can say with some certainty that Disney, TimeWarner/Aol, Viacom, NewsCorps, and GE/NBC won’t provide the ingredients fundamental to democracy. So, given the current institutional arrangements in society, where else beside in schools, operating in coordination with grassroots and advocacy groups, can concerned educators begin to develop the relationships, and struggle over the wider conditions, that make democracy possible?

We are already seeing the evidence of the disproportionate provision of educational opportunity. We can look to statistics on military enlistment rates and from what social classes enlistees came, how much education they had upon when enlisting, and their motivations for enlisting. We can also look at our massive prison-industrial complex, the indisputable world leader of such complexes. Our prison population nearly tripled between 1990 and 2002, largely as a consequence to the then newly crafted drug laws and sentencing policies, petty, non-violent crime, and laws surrounding social behaviors. A large percentage of people sentenced for crimes during this time period were un- or under-employed in the year before they were arrested for their alleged crimes. Many, too, had comparatively lower amounts of education. Clearly, all of the education in the world will not get people jobs if the jobs do not exist, but education is certainly helpful in allowing one to compete for existing jobs.

Further, various studies have pointed out that schooling plays at least an indirect role in various life chances, choices, and outcomes: where/if one will go to college, what fields one will pursue, one’s political orientation, and even people’s marriage choices or choices of life partners. Education also plays an indirect role in where one might live, which other recent studies have shown to be correlated with life expectancy. Unevenly allocating educational opportunity can only create uneven outcomes in these and various other areas. Such unevenness on these socio-economic indicators threatens democracy in a couple of ways. It reduces the range of choices and resources available to people, and it does so, as Pierre Bourdieu argued in the 1970s, through “objective” means and, being “objective,” make it very difficult for people to legitimately contest unequal outcomes, if they were to be so audacious to contest “objective” processes and practices in the first place. It also creates the conditions in which different groups of people are educated in fundamentally different ways, if at all, about civic life. It’s interesting to read Horace Mann’s “Report No. 12 to the Massachusetts School Board” from 1848 and see the consequences he predicted would result from failing to produce a coherent schooling system that focused on political education: the rich and poor inhabiting distinctly different social, political, and even moral universes; the installation of feudalism under a different name; seething, if not mass, social tension and possible unrest; inclination to resort to violence as opposed to politics; and a dysfunctional government, among many other things. Sadly, these imagined consequences hardly seem like rhetorical excess 160 years later.

KP: You see “a critical, educated hope” as a necessary “guiding force” toward “reconstituting the democratic legacy of public schooling and the promise of a democratic future.” Obama took the mantle of the presidential candidate of hope. Do you see a “critical, educated hope” present?

CR: Given the available evidence to date, I see a narrowly, that is, ideologically-driven, pragmatic hope, which is a contradiction of terms. Pragmatism alleges to be non-ideological. Its currently vogue version goes kind of like the following: Let’s take some of the evidence we can put our fingertips on (e.g., in the healthcare hearings in the Senate finance committee, no supporters of the single-payer option were invited to the table), look at the very immediate situation, see what tools we have at our disposal, apply those tools in the least “partisan” (which seems to translate into the most market-friendly) way, and hope they will get us through this or that situation, and we will come happily out on the other side as post-partisan and post-political drones. But, how is this not ideological, or how can it avoid becoming ideological? Isn’t it ideological to say we are moving beyond politics to being “practical” and “pragmatic?” Isn’t democratic politics a vehicle that can allow us to address “practical” but albeit sometimes complex and messy social and economic questions? More importantly, how is such a pusillanimously pragmatic hope not short-sighted? Doesn’t hope require social and political vision, something that allows us to imagine and practice into being a future that does not repeat the present, one that Ernst Bloch said would always be not-yet?

It also seems that questions and questioning would play central roles in a critical, educated hope. Questions, especially needling ones about things that we would prefer not to talk about or ones that others unremittingly try to convince us are “just the ways things are,” perform critical work in bringing a more humane future into being by drawing attention to strategic silences in political discourse and denaturalizing the socially produced phenomena that the powerful would wish to be seen as the consequences of the mere unfolding of the natural order. Questioning, as Cornelius Castoriadis and Zygmunt Bauman have argued, is central to not only hope but also justice: A democratic society is one that is able to continually question not only its existing institutions, but also the assumptions involved in the construction and maintenance of those institutions. A democratic society is one that never asks enough questions about justice, justice already produced, and justice that could be produced. In Zygmunt Bauman’s words, a democratic society is never “just enough.” A society that can no longer or that does not any longer question itself stops being a democratic society. Justice and hope seem to be connected, in this regard, by a culture of critical questioning. Our ability to produce more justice and hope for more justice relies, in part, on our capacities to question the basic values informing, and institutions legitimating, our social relationships.

In my estimation, I don’t see enough questioning, or at least appropriate questioning, by people properly situated, about the basic assumptions and relationships organizing our society, for there to be a critical, educated hope. Just think about the questions that have animated government responses to the financial meltdown. Politicians have made exhaustive attempts to repeatedly assure us (and their constituents in the business community) that government interventions are aimed to recuperate the “free market “ and the “enterprising spirit” that “so marks America,” as if these were the assurances many of us wanted to hear. See, these responses are the result of an inability to ask questions about given institutional arrangements; the only questions that could be publicly asked so far are of the following sort, “Given the existing crisis, how can we recuperate a free market order, or at least one that is favorable to concentrated corporate interest?” The assumption is that the “free market” philosophy and its attendant institutions were not the problem; it was the excesses of a few bad apples. We have heard this rationale before, haven’t we? Or, we can look at the limited public conversations and debates about contemporary education policy. These debates typically operate on the assumption that all that we have is all that can be achieved; we just need to do some tweaking or twittering here and there on accountability issues. When Duncan first announced interests in national standards, for instance, he obviously assumed that NCLB and the philosophy and sociology that drove it are generally sound; in his words, “There are some problems in the policy…”, not that the policy itself was/is a problem.

All of this, however, is not a rallying cry for hopelessness. I retain hope that people are more complex and complicated than politicians assume them to be. I also retain hope that people, being human, are unfinished, much like the circumstances in which they find themselves and, in part, help produce. The pedagogical question here, one that Paulo Freire asked a long time ago and others have asked since, is, how do we create conditions in which people can recognize their unfinished-ness and how can such a recognition be used to mobilize efforts to create and support social relationships and institutions that open us to a more democratic future rather than foreclose it from us, reduce social suffering rather than exacerbate it, expand justice rather than unevenly apply it.

Kim Petersen is an independent writer. He can be emailed at: kimohp at Read other articles by Kim.

5 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. David said on July 24th, 2009 at 8:54am #

    Academics. You’ve got to love most of these clowns.

    And the most lovable of all? Why – the professors of education, of course.

    It is not without reason that this group has so much scorn heaped upon it. Since the early seventies, they have fiddled with this educational theory and faddled with that bunch of smoke-and-mirrors data, all in service to their careers. They have cranked out a seemingly endless supply of subject-ignorant drones in service to the latest bucket of educationese shit.

    And the losers? The students as always. And by extension, the entire nation.

    Supposing is good, but finding out is better.
    ~ Mark Twain

  2. kalidas said on July 24th, 2009 at 11:19am #

    I never let my schooling interfere with my education.
    Mark Twain

    The essential difficulty of pedagogy lies in the impossibility of inducing a sufficiency of superior men and women to become pedagogues. Children, and especially boys, have sharp eyes for the weaknesses of the adults set over them. It is impossible to make boys take seriously the teaching of men they hold in contempt.
    H.L. Mencken

  3. lichen said on July 24th, 2009 at 1:13pm #

    Yes, that is why free schools, in which students pursue their own curriculum, explore the things they want without “authority” figures or two-bit holders of education degrees standing over them making themselves feel powerful, are much more effective and truly bring democracy into full scale. No one deserves a higher place than anyone else in society, so no, people who coincidentally have higher marks in systems that give out grades should not “rise to the top” of anything.

  4. Melissa said on July 24th, 2009 at 7:34pm #

    Publicly funded and mandated education has been on the decline since the Federal Gov and its purchasers got involved. Way too much control has been taken away from local stakeholders, and parents, ones with the where-with-all to realize what the environment in schools and the “reformed” curricula consist of, find themselves begging in front of the school boards and arguing with principals and teachers instead of feeling invested in schools.

    lichen: yes to free schools, and a breakdown of the hierarchy of patriarchal and authoritive ways. And cheers to abandoning monopolies granted to the publishers that push the awful curriculum and dumbed-down, corporate-capitalist indoctrinating textbooks.

    Education is not something that can just be delivered to people (of any age). We must want it and work for it. That means we need to be interested and co-creators with our curriculum, not just receivers. Education and democracy are not like pizza and chinese food that are delivered upon request.

    Ensuring equal opportunity is a lot easier and more abundant than many complainers realize. Ensuring equal outcomes is impossible and is a subjective and foolish game. Every child has access to schools and libraries. What they do with them is their business. Most of the kids in my neighborhood have never been to a library, but that’s OK because they don’t take care of their own things much less shared things, and don’t like to read. Their “poor”, but they have cable, video games, name brand sweatshop clothes and shoes, soda and chips and candy, but don’t want books. Sad, huh?

    In the end, if parents and kids don’t value education, no amount of additional funding and sociology is going to change the outcomes. It is interesting to me that families in countries without such accessible resources of public schools and libraries jump with alacrity at the opportunities when they get them, and in my country they demand that someone give them an education, when it’s already available.

    The problem is economic disparity. Schools have only entrenched the problem. Why bother with “they schools” anymore? They clearly don’t deserve more money, the failing kids’ families should get additional money since that’s what tests show is the “outcome” factor. But the schools always say, if you’d just give us more money . . .


  5. michael cain said on August 22nd, 2009 at 10:18pm #

    I am looking for zero tolerance stick on , logo’s for hardhat’s..any help to point me in the right direction..thanks, in advance, Mike