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Education reform sparring match with Christopher Paslay

By Samuel Reed III on Jun 28, 2012 01:24 PM

Blogger Samuel Reed, III (left) shakes hand with teacher blogger and author Christopher Paslay.

I finally had a face-to-face chat with Christopher Paslay at an end-of-the-school-year celebration with the Teacher Leadership Professional Learning Community (PLC). We agreed to put some padded gloves on and have a sparring match on education reform.

Samuel Reed: Chris, in your response to my review of your book, The Village Proposal, you state, “To my chagrin, not a whole lot of people gave a crap.” Why should people care about education reform?

Christopher Paslay: Schools and education do not exist in a vacuum.

Everyone is part of schools and education — teachers, students, parents, administrators, community members, business leaders, clergy, lawmakers, etc. Yet somehow our society seems to think schools are cut off from all this, that they are some free-floating entity that operates independent of all these factors.

Politicians talk of “broken schools,” as if they aren’t the ones writing the policy.

Parents speak of “low achievement,” as if they have nothing to do to with helping their children complete assignments and practice new skills.

Community leaders speak out against “school violence,” as if the drugs and crime in their own neighborhoods do not carry over to their schools.

The fact is, everyone is part of schools and education, which is why everyone should care; schools stem from communities, not the other way around.

Reed: I received many comments offline responding to our discourse about social justice. Some folks are not buying that we should strive for a color-blind society. What’s wrong with confronting the impact race and class issues have on teaching and learning?

Paslay: Isn’t the goal of confronting the impact of race and class structure on education (as well as the rest of society) to ultimately create a color-blind environment where everyone is treated equally regardless of race, gender, religion, and sexuality?

We can analyze race and its impact on education, but not to the point where it becomes identity politics. Getting too caught up in race can become polarizing and divisive, especially when it’s flat-out political and has little to do with solving a problem (or when it operates under a double standard).

An example of this was the recent study by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which reported that Black students are more than three times as likely as their White peers to be suspended or expelled. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and a number of civil rights groups insinuated that this was the result of racism and discrimination by White teachers. The analysis of the report by Duncan and other social justice advocates failed to note that Black students are three times as poor as their White peers (and have three times as many behavioral and educational challenges), which might explain to a large extent why they are getting removed from classrooms three times as often.

Reed: So, which came first the chicken or egg? Is poverty caused by racism or does racism allow poverty to persist disproportionately in certain communities?

Paslay: The fact that the lurking variable of poverty was ignored is identity politics in its truest form. What the report didn’t do is address some real concerns and issues in urban education, namely the need to bring traditional values back to public schools (honesty, integrity, respect for authority) and the need to reverse the disintegration of the Black nuclear family (70 percent of Black babies in the U.S. are born out-of-wedlock). Bill Cosby had the right idea about human interactions when he said he always wanted his comedy to focus on the things that made people the same, not dwell on the differences. Every theme of every episode of The Cosby Show was a universal human theme, a powerful message that transcended race and applied to everyone, not just Black, or poor, or gay, or whatever. This is the direction we must go in teaching and education today.

Reed: While reading your book, I was also reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Do you think the school-to-prison pipeline mantra is a hoax?

Paslay: Alexander’s school-to-prison pipeline mantra has some validity. There is no doubt that slavery and racial segregation have put minorities at a disadvantage in the U.S. After generations of poverty and oppression, it’s going to take some time for all affected communities of color to break the cycle of poverty and get up to speed with the ever-changing and complex workings of 21st-century American society. There is a very real need for the system to provide assistance to help minorities do just that. With that said, however, I don’t agree that the government or the American establishment has consciously created a school-to-prison pipeline in order to keep minorities at the bottom of the class system.

Reed: But how do we explain our state’s exponential increase in corrections spending compared to its decrease in education spending? Isn't this a systemic governmental problem?

Paslay: A major cause of the school-to-prison pipeline is a person’s faulty belief that they are helpless (low expectations). The “victim mentality,” which often goes hand-in-hand with social justice, is a very dangerous thing.

Human beings always have a choice. Always. Viktor Frankl’s powerful book Man’s Search for Meaning exemplifies this point. It is the story of Frankl’s survival in a Nazi concentration camp and how, no matter what the situation, Frankl had a choice of how he would respond. In other words, he wasn’t able to control the things being done to him, but he could control his reaction and attitude to this treatment. He went on to survive the Holocaust and help millions through his later work.

Is there a school-to-prison pipeline? There doesn’t have to be. If you want to stay in school, study and do your work. If you want to stay out of prison, don’t break any laws. Students do have a choice, and they must constantly be reminded of this. They are not victims. This is my golden rule in my classroom.

Reed: How do you sidestep the critics who say as a “privileged White teacher” you should not have co-opted the African “village” concept for a title of your book?

Paslay: I don’t buy into identity politics, so it doesn’t matter. I truly believe, as I think most Americans do (once they get down from their political soapbox, that is), that we should focus our energy on treating people as people. I’m not being naive or idealistic when I say this, either.

Think about the interpersonal relationships in your own life. Think about the people closest to you in your daily relationships. Do you see them as people, or as Black, White, poor, gay, etc.? Paulo Freire, the self-proclaimed Marxist who wrote the famous Pedagogy of the Oppressed, was an early pioneer of class warfare and understood that in order to incite true revolution and bring down the “dominant oppressive culture,” you had to divide and conquer. You had to call names, label people, hold skin color near and dear. You had to turn rich against poor, Black against White, gay against straight, men against women, Christians against Muslims (much the same way our current president is doing).

So to those who would say that I shouldn’t have lifted the African “village” idea for my book that was written to unite people and improve education because I am a “privileged White teacher,” I would say phooey. I worked my tail off to get where I am today, paid for most of my education, followed the rules, made good decisions, and am somewhat successful. Nothing has been given to me for free (just ask my freshman students who ran me through the gauntlet back in 1997 during my rookie year as a teacher). Was I blessed with good parents? Yes. Was I born healthy and relatively intelligent? Yes. Do I believe I have a “White privilege” that gives me a free ride or special treatment over other folks? Not really.

Reed: What do you think of the School District of Philadelphia’s pendulum shift toward more school-based autonomy and achievement networks? Does this mean teachers can move away from teaching to the test?

Paslay: Teachers will never move away from teaching to the test until the culture of public education moves away from the tone established by No Child Left Behind, which is the overreliance on high-stakes tests. NCLB is more about satisfying the public’s urge to hold teachers and schools “accountable” (and all the politics behind controlling money, resources, curriculum, etc.) than it is about learning and improving instruction. Nonetheless, my gut feeling is that the School District of Philadelphia’s apparent shift to more school-based autonomy is a good thing. Principals should have more flexibility and autonomy to make decisions and shape and control policy and curriculum. The issues presented at the June 18 SRC meeting by the District’s principals are a great example of the need for principal autonomy.

As for achievement networks, I think this is simply reinventing the wheel. The District is, without a doubt, too big to manage successfully (there is too much bureaucracy, too little transparency, and too many cracks for things to slip into), but this problem can only be solved from the bottom up and not the top down — through a more educated and engaged community; truly engaged parents, not high-stakes tests, are the only true way to hold teachers and schools “accountable.”

Reed: Okay, boxing gloves off. What are your plans for the summer? What are you incubating in your teaching and writing lab?

Paslay: This summer I am continuing my coursework in school counseling. I also plan to continue to write and blog about education and other interests. As for my teaching, I’m beginning to generate new activities around Pennsylvania’s Common Core Standards, which the District is rolling out this coming school year.

Christopher Paslay teaches high school English in the Philadelphia School District. He is a frequent contributor to the Philadelphia Inquirer and a prolific education blogger on Chalk and Talk. His book, The Village Proposal, was published in 2011 by Rowman & Littlefield.

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Comments (43)

Submitted by Gamal Sherif on June 28, 2012 3:12 pm

Thanks for a rich conversation. Classism and racism (and sexism) are forms of cultural violence. A person's proximity to violence affects his/her life chances.

Submitted by Mary Beth Hertz (not verified) on June 28, 2012 4:45 pm

Thanks, as Gamal says, for sharing this conversation. It is a model for how we can have meaningful and productive conversation without resorting to name calling, yelling and divisiveness.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 28, 2012 8:02 pm

Thanks to Sam and Christopher for the thoughtful dialogue. I thought I could add some perspectives on a few of the issues touched upon here.

First, I need to stand up for Paulo Freire. To reduce his scholarship to Marxist ideology that advocated for divide and conquer class warfare in which Mr. Palsey claims, "You had to call names, label people, hold skin color near and dear. You had to turn rich against poor, Black against White, gay against straight, men against women, Christians against Muslims" is a unfortunate oversimplification and misreading of Freire. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire advocated for a critical education to happen in collaboration with oppressed groups to strive for the humanization of all groups to live in community with each other with all of their beautiful and unique differences; not one in which groups are turned against each other. In fact, one of the central dangers that Freire warns against is the tendency of an oppressed group to behave just like their oppressors did after they, through some revolution, have gained "power." The message from Freire is an important one for any educator: that you, in all of your uniqueness are beautiful just the way you are. Freire's theory of education for a critical consciousness and humanization of all people goes well beyond the material world to the acceptance of our identities within a highly complex and diverse world. (If Mr. Palsey or anyone else disagrees with this interpretation of Freire's work, we would need to agree to disagree. I would highly encourage anyone to give a close read to Pedagogy of the Oppressed and his later book Pedagogy of Freedom.)

On the issues of race and White privilege:

When I think about the importance of discussing race openly, it is not to make a certain group feel bad or insecure, but to understand how race affects our identities. This understanding of something like White or male privilege within certain social, political, and professional contexts, actually becomes an empowering realization for someone who wants to advocate for a just world (and this is coming from a white male). There are contexts in which "Whiteness" or "maleness" may not necessarily be a privilege, but when you look at the history of our country and those who tend to be in positions of power, we can see how there are contexts in which it is a privilege to be White and/or a male.

As Mr. Palsey stated, it may be an ideal to work towards a colorblind or post-racial society, but certainly dismissing dialogue about race is not the means to work towards that goal. A goal of race dialogue is to recognize that race is a social construct, a social construct that has an objective impact on our world. I actually believe we will never live in a purely post-racial or colorblind society because as long as there is diversity when it comes to culture and economic status, there will be certain characteristics and oversimplifications (aka stereotypes) that are attributed to certain groups, and those groups may have a certain kind of hair, shape of nose, or color of skin that differentiates them. Therefore, we should enter into dialogue about race in order to build connections and understandings for how we are alike and how we are all trying to be unique and complex individuals; we are all trying to be fully human, to be accepted as we are.

I think it was Confucious who was characterized as a rugged or persevering idealist. Everyday was a problem to be solved, an uphill journey in an imperfect world. We cannot just pretend that we live in a colorblind society and call anyone who brings up race a perpetrator of "identity politics," although, I agree, that some racial discussions can be reduced to that. We need to commit ourselves to more nuanced discussions where we do not dismiss each other but seek to learn from each other.

I applaud Sam and Christopher for this open and honest discussion. There are many subtle differences in perspective, but I can also see how there are huge connections and good intent for the benefit of our students. We are working very hard to understand our social reality for the sake of educating our students in the best possible ways.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 29, 2012 3:15 pm

Thanks for taking the time to clarify and expand on Freire's work, I completely agree with your review. I had planned t respond but then saw your excellent review. Thanks again.

Submitted by Philadelphia citizen, voter, taxpayer (not verified) on June 29, 2012 4:45 pm


Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 29, 2012 9:57 pm

You said, "I actually believe we will never live in a purely post-racial or colorblind society because as long as there is diversity when it comes to culture and economic status, there will be certain characteristics and oversimplifications..."

Never? Kind of bleak. Shouldn't we be striving towards a society where there is economic equality and then these issues of racial identity will fade away as we realize we are all basically one human race.

Submitted by Anxious Teacher (not verified) on June 29, 2012 10:53 am

What a refreshing conversation that's honest, deals with the realities of poverty, the need for the presence of multiple community components and racism. After my PHILWP experience, the concept of white privilege made sense although it was painful to absorb. Is it reasonable to view some aspects of what we think of as racism, to be the natural human need to compartmentalize information as a means of processing and understanding? This isn't meant to be a support of placing values and expectations on people based on what we see, just as question of where some beliefs originate.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 29, 2012 11:50 am

"Anonymous's" response was a generally informative and constructive follow-up to the Reed/Paslay conversation--especially his clarification of what Freire actually wrote. I would like to add another thought, regarding Christopher's reference to Viktor Frankel's message about choice. It has been my experience that it is often easier for someone other than the individual him/herself to see that there "is *always* a choice" than it may be for the one who is in the choice-making position. When someone says that he/she *doesn't* have a choice, I believe that what is really being communicated is that he/she doesn't *think* that there is a choice; the person actually doesn't see an options--or doesn't see any viable option, which amounts to virtually the same thing. Therefore, the compassionate (and most helpful) response is not to argue with the non-choicemaker as to whether or not he/she has a choice, but rather to explore with him/her why he *believes* there is no choice. In other words, help separate out fact from opinion, without disparaging the opinion. Where, one can ask, did this belief originate in the choicemaker's mind? Is this a new or long-held belief? Only after assuring the choicemaker that his/her belief (sic) has been heard and understood is it then appropriate to offer an alternative perspective--specifically, the belief that there is always a choice--and perhaps an example of what an alternative choice might look like--phrased in a way that doesn't come across as a "should". (I have found that introducing an idea with the words "How to" can make it easier for others to hear and consider.)

For example, if someone says, "I can't get a good education because I go to a lousy school and I can't go to another one", one might ask for clarification as to why the person believes that going to another school, or even getting a good education at the present one, are not options? (Again, with a genuinely inquisitive, non-judgmental intention and tone of voice!) After paraphrasing the explanation to the satisfaction of the choicemaker (so he/she would say, "Yes, you have grasped my meaning"), one might respond by saying, "I have a couple of beginning ideas based on what I heard from you. One is, "How to document the reasons why your school can't help you and take them to the proper authority in order to appeal for a transfer". Another might be, "How to learn on your own without being dependent on your teachers, or perhaps How to find someone outside of school who could help you in the way that a good teacher would".

Perhaps one such "How-to" would lead to an implementable idea. Or it might lead to a "yeah, but" response which is akin to saying "I still have no choice", in which case you can respond by rephrasing the rejection of your How-to as yet another How-to--kind of like judo, where you re-direct the energy but in a more positive way.

In either event, after hearing enough How-tos, most people will eventually feel their position of helplessness start to crumble. They will see by implication that other people see choices where they do not--hence, it is not a fact that they have no choice, only their belief. And that is the beginning of the shift we are looking for.

Peter A. Bergson

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on June 29, 2012 12:33 pm


Racial inequality is an undeniable fact of life in our society.   Unemployment, income, health care, schooling, rates of incarceration…pick any category you want and the result is the same, a glaring divide between white and black.  


There are two competing schools of thought as to the persistence of this inequality.   One is that it is an expression of a deeply seated, institutionalized system of white supremacy.   The other is that black people need to shape up and take advantage of the opportunities that are there for them and stop playing the role of victims.  This is the Bill Cosby argument and Chris Paisley, with some hemming and hawing, basically buys into it. 


White supremacy is not only about the material inequalities between the races.  It is also an ideological construct that has evolved and adapted over our history.   At root it rationalizes inequality as the natural order of things.   During slavery the conventional wisdom was that blacks lacked the intellectual and moral capacity to be free.  Today this overt racism is no longer in fashion but has been replaced by a set of stereotypes that continue to denigrate black people.  Thus blacks have a higher rate of unemployment, not because of discrimination in education and hiring, but  because they lack the work ethic of white people.    Blacks get suspended more often because of a disposition toward violence, not because of any shortcomings of schools.   Etc.


The whole political discourse in our country is shot through with the issue of race, often in coded language.   The Tea Party’s anti-government politics are fueled by rage at what they see as blacks and immigrants being privileged by government programs.    Racism clearly plays a central role in why so many working class white people vote for politicians who favor policies that exploit them. 


I don’t know what Chris Paisley means by identity politics.   I’m a white man but I try to see the world as it is, correcting best I can for any bias that stems from my background and life experience.   I think that’s what we all try to do.   Our identity matters but our ideas need to be judged objectively.  


It’s on those grounds I find Chris Paisley’s argument wanting.    Surely everyone should be challenged to take responsibility for themselves and the choices they make.   But the context for those choices is invariably racialized and we deny that at our peril.  

Submitted by Christopher Paslay (not verified) on June 29, 2012 4:50 pm


Thanks for joining the conversation between Sam and I. I would like to respond to a few of the comments you just made. It seems clear that we have slightly different views of the world and society. I believe that race still matters in America, and that racism (stemming from the “institutionalized system of white supremacy”) still exists; in my above discussion with Sam I acknowledged that America’s past legacy of slavery and segregation still have a very real effect on today’s society. However, I don’t believe racism, either overt or “coded,” exists to the extreme that you insist it does. I grew up in the Philadelphia area, had a very diverse group of friends, and have been a teacher, coach, mentor, etc. for nearly 20 years. I’ve worked and lived in nearly every part of Philadelphia, and my father was a Philadelphia schoolteacher for 37 years. I’ve interacted with thousands of students and parents, driven them home from track meets, counseled them with problems, etc. And in my experience, I just don’t see the kind of deep-seeded racism and stereotyping that you insist is the root of nearly every problem facing minorities today.

This might be a generational thing; you grew up through the 1960s and witnessed firsthand all the racial tension in Philadelphia and the rest of America, and I can see how this may have shaped your worldview, how maybe the 1960s racial tension and violence made a lasting impression on your young mind—much like it did Jonathan Kozol, whose book on educational inequalities The Shame of the Nation opens with the beating death of three young civil rights activists in Mississippi by the KKK (what kind of an impression did this make on Kozol and his writing?).

It’s not the 1960s anymore. America has come a long, long way. I grew up in the 1980s, during the Cosby Show era. My first impressions of race and race relations were different from yours. This perhaps might be why I see things differently. I understand that people get trapped in the cycle of poverty, generation after generation, and that at times it is extremely difficult—regardless of personal responsibility—to break out of; I get this. I’ve been working with students and parents like this for a long time. I have compassion for them, and understand their difficulties and challenges and do my best to help them work through them.

With that said, however, I still don’t see the kind of racism you so frequently describe in your blogs and in your above comments. The racial inequities involving unemployment, income, health care, schooling, rates of incarceration do not solely stem from racism, overt or institutional; they simply don’t. Racism, past and present, play a PART, but are not the only part. Values, culture, work ethic, decisions, are also a part of this, whether you can get yourself to see this or not. Admitting this, however uncomfortable it may be, is not embracing a stereotype. Out-of-wedlock births are real, and they have an effect of family, education, incarceration, employment, etc. Here are the out-of-wedlock birthrates by race in the years 2003-04: Asian-Americas—16%; Whites—34%; Hispanics—46%; and African-Americans—77%. Compare this with test scores: Asians are the highest, than Whites, than Hispanics, than Blacks. There’s no correlation here? No correlation between television watching (highest for Blacks), number of books in the home (lowest for Blacks), parental involvement (lowest for Blacks), etc.? These are facts, not stereotypes. And yes, they are uncomfortable to talk about.

There are those who will argue that these patterns exist because of institutional racism, and nothing else. An African American man is caught in a vicious cycle and his behavior is not his own, but the result of some previous, systematic inequality. Every statistic (like the ones mentioned above) can be attributed to some other outside racist or oppressive force. My question is, when does this stop? When does a person go from passive to active? When does the change and transformation occur? Should society be expected to change around the person, is that the answer? Are we to tell our students and children that whoever they’ve become is okay—if your quality of life is poor, just wait for the system to change around you? Wait for the system to stop being racist?

This is where me and Bill Cosby differ from you. Bill Cosby grew up in the Richard Allen Projects right here in Philadelphia. He worked his way up through the system at a time when there was serious overt racism, but he never allowed himself to blame others. He’s a civil rights activist and philanthropist who’s donated tens of thousands of dollars to the Black community. And do you know what? After Cosby made his famous “Pound Cake” speech at the fiftieth anniversary of Brown v. Board, stating, “We can’t blame white people, Brown v. Board is no longer a white person’s problem,” the crowd of mostly American Americans stood and applauded. Cosby’s idea that all change starts from within is what we have to instill in our children and students. Yes, they need to change, not only the system.

You can focus on how people are different, boiling every problem, challenge, and difficulty down to race. I choose to focus on the things that make everyone the same, fighting to instill in my students those universal human qualities that will help them rise above skin color and improve the quality of their lives. We can still fight to make the system more fair, but we cannot deny that all change starts from within.

I guess you and I simply differ on this philosophy.

Christopher Paslay

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on June 29, 2012 5:44 pm


Chris, in the spirit of constructive discussion let me make a couple of points.


I certainly am not arguing that black people, or any one who faces oppression, should use this is an excuse for passivity.   Both as a teacher and as a political activist I have argued that people need to take control of their lives.   But for me this does not mean “pulling yourself up by your boot straps” a la Bill Cosby.   It means understanding who you are, how you got there and what needs to happen to change the oppressive constraints you face.   It means both individual and collective struggle.  At least to this extent I agree with you that paternalistic notions of victimhood that many liberals exhibit are harmful.   To paraphrase Marx, people are agents and they make their own history, but they make it under circumstances they don’t determine.


I don’t think “society” is the problem.   Monopoly capitalism in the historically specific way it has developed in America has a vested interest in white supremacy.   It has served it well both in economic and political terms.    That system is the problem in my view.   The masses of white, working people are not the beneficiaries of this system even though they occupy a privileged position relative to people of color.  



While my experiences in the Sixties certainly shaped my politics, and I would agree there are important differences between that period and today in terms of racial attitudes, I don’t think things have changed fundamentally.   Indeed in certain important respects things are worse.   The deindustrialization of urban America has had a devastating impact on the black working class, increasing poverty and wreaking havoc on family life.   During this same period there has been a modest growth in the black middle class.   Bill Cosby speaks for an element of that strata who consciously distance themselves from the people they have left behind.   More importantly, his views give aid and comfort to those whites who believe the aims of the civil rights struggle have largely been achieved. 


We do have differences but, following the example of collegiality set by Sam, I don’t think that precludes discussion.   I also think, as evidenced by some of your writing over the last year, we have some common ground and can build on this. 

Submitted by Charles R. (not verified) on June 29, 2012 10:48 pm

Between Sam and I----------and you teach ENGLISH !!?

Submitted by Samuel Reed III on June 30, 2012 11:00 am

Charles R.

Actually I teach young people! 

Hopefully, they become critical readers, writers and thinkers during the process. I do use English as the main language. But I have been known to encourage my students to explore other languages and cultures too ;)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 30, 2012 1:19 pm

Sam--I wasn't criticizing you at all. I was commenting on Mr. Pasley's poor grammar for an English Teacher.

Submitted by Samuel Reed III on June 30, 2012 1:00 pm

My comment was a deflection:) ( duck and move to the left) 

Mr Pasley and I both do our best to teach our students the power of words.  or should it be " Both Pasley and I both do our best....

I wouldn't question Mr Pasley's ability to use grammar. He is a seasoned writer, published author and frequent contributor to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on June 30, 2012 12:37 am

Hi Chris,

I want to address some of your points from this paragraph:

Out-of-wedlock births are real, and they have an effect of family, education, incarceration, employment, etc. Here are the out-of-wedlock birthrates by race in the years 2003-04: Asian-Americas—16%; Whites—34%; Hispanics—46%; and African-Americans—77%. Compare this with test scores: Asians are the highest, than Whites, than Hispanics, than Blacks. There’s no correlation here? No correlation between television watching (highest for Blacks), number of books in the home (lowest for Blacks), parental involvement (lowest for Blacks), etc.? These are facts, not stereotypes. And yes, they are uncomfortable to talk about.
I absolutely agree that the breakdown of the family is very problematic in our society. However, the growing number of births outside of marriage is a complex phenomenon. Among the many reasons are the increasing economic opportunities of women and fewer stigmas about having children outside of marriage. There certainly are correlations (or relationships) between births to unmarried parents, poverty, incarceration, and employment. However, it’s important not to equate correlation with causation. It’s next to impossible to prove causation in these particular situations because of the complex and hard-to-quantify interactions among employment, marital status, race, socioeconomic status, and so on and so forth.

Regarding my background, I am in my 20s and grew up in a middle class, culturally White family, and predominately White neighborhood in a city on the West Coast. (I say culturally White because my mom is half Latino). My parents have been married for over 30 years. I currently live in a working class/middle class Black neighborhood in Philadelphia. When I’m not at school, most of my interactions are with Black people (e.g., work, SEPTA, church, in my neighborhood), most of them being non-immigrant African Americans.

It is important to look at the underlying factors contributing to higher numbers of out-of-wedlock birth rates in particular populations. There are strong relationships among socioeconomic status, education, and marriage (Coontz, 2012). Poverty, particularly intergenerational poverty, is more prevalent among Native Americans and African Americans than any other racial or ethnic groups in this country. I’ll focus on Black Americans here. Marriage rates have been declining for all racial and ethnic groups since the 1950s. The drop has been particularly acute among African Americans. Why is this? Again, it’s complex. The Bennett et al. (1986) and Census publications have some good information about Black marriage rates over time. The Bennett et al. (1986) article is widely cited and the Census publication has information about marriage rates over time, which similar, more recent Census publications lack.

Statistically, there are strong relationships between marriage and men’s employment. Again, it’s hard to make a causal inference here, but the decline of employment opportunities for Black men has been very acute over the last 50 years. When a man is unable to provide sufficiently (whether partially or fully) for a family, a woman and her family will be less likely to consider him a suitable husband, even if the woman is able to contribute financially to a family. William Julius Wilson has some of the best writing on the issues of African American poverty and unemployment. He is also willing to cite cultural factors, not just structural factors, although he argues convincingly that structural factors are more important. Two of his books address the issues of persistent poverty in Black communities: More than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City and When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor. Both books are research-based and very thorough. The decline of manufacturing and the rise of service jobs have been devastating for Black men. It was much easier for Whites to relocate outside of cities in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s than it was for Blacks. Redlining and restrictive covenants made it difficult for many African Americans to move to the suburbs. Also, many suburbs don’t have public housing.

Regarding cultural issues, I personally believe that there also are some cultural issues among some members of the African American community which may make it more difficult to move out of poverty or find gainful employment. Tattoos are a prime example. Tattoos are increasing in popularity among people of all racial and ethnic groups. However, it is common to see many younger African Americans with large numbers of tattoos, including tattoos on the neck and face. It is particularly common among Black men, but is also common among Black women. On a daily basis, I see Black men who have tattoos covering their bodies and/or on their face. In some cases, the tattoos, particularly on the face, may be quite detrimental for finding a job, particularly a well-paying job.

I have seen White and Latino/a people with large numbers of tattoos, including face and neck tattoos. I have no idea about the prevalence of popularity of tattoos in particular communities in Philadelphia. It’s hard for me to say because I live in a predominately Black neighborhood, so by default, I see more Black persons with tattoos than White or Latino/a persons. For Whites and Latino/as, tattoos very likely can be detrimental for finding a job, especially a well-paying one, if tattoos are conspicuous (e.g., all over the body or on the face or neck).

I respectfully disagree with your points about the school-to-prison pipeline. In 2004, 40% of the state and federal prison population was African American, even though African Americans made up about 12 to 13% of the U.S. population at this time (Harrison & Beck, 2005, p. 8). In addition, Mauer and King (2007) found that “while more than 1% of African Americans in 49 states and the District of Columbia are incarcerated, there is not a single state in the country with a rate of incarceration that high for whites” (p. 8). The rates of African American imprisonment are both staggering and extremely disproportionate in comparison to other racial/ethnic groups. I know many African Americans who are college-educated, some of whom have advanced degrees, and they have family members (typically males) who have served time in prison. Growing up, I didn’t know a single person who had ever been to prison.

One reason for such a high number of Blacks in prison is due to disproportionality in sentencing for crack and powder cocaine. Until 201o, the disparity was 100 to 1, with the sentencing guideline for crack being 100 times the penalty for powder cocaine. This means that “under the current penalty structure, established during the so-called ‘crack epidemic’ of the late 1980s, possession of crack can carry the same sentence as the possession of a quantity of cocaine that is 100 times larger” (Kurtzlebaum, 2010).To this day, the disparity is still 18 to 1. There have never been similarly punitive sentencing guidelines for meth as for crack cocaine, even though meth is as destructive if not more so than crack cocaine.

Regarding eliminating the disparities in sentencing for crack and powder cocaine, Johnson (2010) wrote that “Durbin and Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) continue to argue that equalizing the penalties would be the fairest approach, but gaining Republican and law enforcement support proved difficult.” Perhaps this is due to many Republicans have a political interest in the prison system, especially in states where convicted felons lose the right to vote for life. African Americans as a population vote at very high rates for Democratic candidates. Thus, it would seem logical that Republicans, especially in states with large African American populations, have a political interest in disenfranchising African Americans. I hate to think that any politician would think this way, but it would not surprise me if it happens.

In conclusion, although race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status do not determine a person’s lot in life, they contribute substantially to opportunities. There is far less margin for error for African Americans in this country, particularly for those who live in inner city neighborhoods and other poor areas. I highly recommend reading the article called “Going Straight: The Story of a Young Inner-City Ex-Convict,” by Penn professor Elijah Anderson. It describes the Mantua (“The Bottom”) neighborhood in Philadelphia and some of the cultural dynamics that make the margin for error thin, particularly for young Black men. When compared with children who attend schools in middle-class or wealthy school districts like Lower Merion, Springfield, or Radnor, it is much harder for a child in Philadelphia to stay on the straight and narrow in the School District of Philadelphia unless he or she attends the elite schools in the city (e.g., Penn Alexander, Masterman). Just imagine how different the environment is at a school like Overbrook HS or West Philadelphia HS versus Lower Merion HS or Springfield HS.

Anderson, E. (2001). Going Straight: The Story of a Young Inner-City Ex-Convict. Punishment & Society, 3(1), 135-152. Retrieved from

Bennett, N. G., Bloom, D. E., & Craig, P. H. (1986). The divergence of black and white marriage patterns. The American Journal of Sociology, 95(3), pp. 692-722. Retrieved from

Coontz, Stephanie. (2012, February 11). The M.R.S. and the Ph.D. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Harrison, P.M. and Beck, A.J. (2005, October). Prisoners in 2004. Bureau of Justice Statistics
Bulletin. Retrieved from

Johnson, C. (2009, October 16). Bill Targets Sentencing Rules for Crack, Powder Cocaine. The Washington Post. Retrieved from

Kurtzlebaum, D. (2010, August 3). Data Show Racial Disparity in Crack Sentencing. U.S. News & World Report. Retrieved from

Mauer, M. & King, R. S. (2007, July). Uneven Justice: State Rates of Incarceration By Race and Ethnicity. The Sentencing Project. Retrieved from

U. S. Census Bureau. The Black Population in the United States: March 1991, Current Population Reports, Series P-20, No. 464. Retrieved from
Black marriage rates

Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on June 30, 2012 1:10 am


Education Grad Student
(I forgot to include this on my first comment post).

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 30, 2012 9:33 am

Education Grad Student, I am curious, are you posting as two people, I believe the other posting name is Mom M.Ed? and second, are you employed any where? You seem to have a lot of time on your hands. Not being smart or anything. I do enjoy your posts with all of your reference information.It is refreshing to see someone in their 20's be able to express themselves so well. I am in my mid 50's...

I do agree with your statements on tattoos in part because I do see alot of African American youth with them today and at such young ages (7th and 8th graders both males and females). I am at a loss as to where these children's parents and caregivers are. Decisions made at such a young age to mark one's body like this is just so wrong on so many levels. I can remember being in social studies class and talking about social issues many, many years ago and the teacher talking about tattoos and how they are marks for life (and this was before there was any thing called laser surgery to remove tattoos). We were told that having a tattoo made you more identifiable if you committed a crime. We were also told that having tattoos could have a negative impact on one's ability to find a job, particularly if these tattoes were visible. What I am curious to know is how many of these individuals come from Christian backgrounds and are sporting these tattoos? Biblically speaking, tattoos are a no, no, just as piercings are and I would imagine that the piercings also include having pierced ears. In Biblical times, having a pierced ear identified a person as a slave.

But in any event, keep posting.....

Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on July 6, 2012 8:00 pm

No, I'm not Mom M.Ed. I have posted under another name before, but was at least a year ago (and I don't even remember what that name was). Regarding my time, I work, but not full time. Some weeks, I am busier than others, and this often depends on my school schedule. I am passionate about educational and social justice issues and that is why I post. I also enjoy the stimulating discussions on this website and, therefore, I like to contribute to them.


Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 7, 2012 6:28 pm

I so enjoy reading your posts. Please, when you have the time, continue to post, you have alot of good information.

Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on July 6, 2012 9:46 pm


Regarding your points about tattoos, they are very prevalent among Black adolescents/young adults, although I have seen them on teenagers and adults of all races and ethnicities...White, Black, Latino/a, Asian. I think I mentioned in my original post that I'm most familiar with the tattoo phenomenon among African Americans because of my neighborhood. Tattoos seem to be a form of expression, not only self-expression but also loyalty to people, such as children, parents, grandparents, close friends, or significant others. Also, most Black people who have tattoos appear to be 50 or under (judging by a lack of grey hair and overall appearance although estimating ages is often a messy business). And certainly, almost all of the the people who I have seen with tattoos on the face or all over the body are younger than 50, possibly even younger than 40 or 45.

I know someone who does tattoos and it is fairly common in Black neighborhoods for tattoo artists to be freelance. Tattooing is something they do on the side. There aren't very many tattoo parlors in parts of the city like West, SW, or Germantown. Because tattoo artists often are freelance, doing it on a cash basis, it's much harder to stop young adolescents from getting tattoos. As far as parents go, there are a lot of parents with tattoos, and I've seen this with people of a variety of races and ethnicities.

Many people with tattoos are Christian because crosses and crucifixes are common tattoos. Regarding Biblical prohibition against tattoos and piercings, I cannot comment. But if the commonplace nature of premarital sex, drunkenness, and killing is any indication, a Biblical prohibition against tattoos or piercings probably wouldn't hold much weight in this day and time anyhow.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 7, 2012 6:39 pm

Sadly, those who are Christians, who have tattoos, related to their religious beliefs, or otherwise, don't know what their Bible says about inkings on the body as well as piercings. If they did, they would not have them.
Thanks for your comments.

Submitted by Ken Derstine on June 30, 2012 8:45 am

Everyone who has been following this discussion should watch the Friday showing of Bill Moyers & Company. It is an excellent discussion of the issues raised here.

Confronting the Contradictions of America’s Past

Submitted by Samuel Reed III on June 30, 2012 1:58 pm

Ken Derstine,

Thank you for sharing the link to Bill Moyer's discussion with Dr Khalil Muhammad, head of the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and author of The Condemnation of Blackness. (It was definitely worth viewing)

Dr Muhammad's research and discursion about the criminalization of black people provides context for lots of the issues raised in the conversation between Paslay and myself.  

Unfortunately race does matter. But I think we are doing the right thing by confronting the conflicts and tensions that impact our students and our ability to both teach and learn from them.

Submitted by Ken Derstine on June 30, 2012 6:01 pm

Sam, History lives in the present. Not just in the buildings and the technological developments around us, but in our minds. The memories about the past are passed down in our families and our community, and are very much alive in how we interact with each other today. This interview with Dr. Muhammad brought this out very powerfully.

The testing mania brought on by the corporate reformers is yet another way they threaten community because the study of history is given a very low priority in their agenda, deliberately so in many cases. If we do not know history we do not understand each other or the world we live in.

For example, very few people know who Octavius Catto was. Yet, you cannot understand Philadelphia (and America) if you do not know about him and the history he represents. He is one of the greatest Philadelphians, but his memory has been suppressed. He was a great civil rights leader of his day, picking up a civil rights battle which had been going on for decades in mid-19th century Pennsylvania, the right for black men to vote. He would be famous as a great 19th century American like Fredrick Douglas except that he was assassinated at the age of 32 at 9th and South Street in 1871 while getting out the vote in an election.

There is an excellent book about him, "Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America" by Daniel Biddle and Murray Dubin.
Not only is it important for the biography of Octavius Catto, but it is important for what it shows about social conditions in Philadelphia before, during, and after the Civil War. This is not dead history, it is alive in us today.
For a short synopsis of his life see

Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on July 6, 2012 9:21 pm


Your points about the business interest in testing is an important one. Testing in and of itself is a neutral practice. The way that institutions and people USE testing is what makes it ineffective/effective or right/wrong. In fact, formative and curriculum based assessments are a very important method of tracking student progress and informing instruction.

The problem with testing arises when people use the tests as absolute measures instead of as measures which have strengths, weaknesses, and particular purposes. It is very problematic to use a test/assessment for a purpose for which it was not designed. How is it possible to know if a standardized test is a valid measure of teacher effectiveness if there's never been any research done to study how valid and reliable the test is at measuring teacher effectiveness? It's similar to how it can be dangerous to use medications for off-label purposes. A doctor isn't supposed to prescribe a drug for blood pressure for controlling anxiety unless the drug goes through an additional clinical trial to ensure that the drug is safe for regulating anxiety.

Now, it's also apparent that there need to be better teacher evaluation systems. Classroom evaluations are not enough. There needs to be a more holistic system, including evaluations of lesson plans, IEPs, peer evaluations (evaluations from other teachers), and teacher and student evaluations. It's also fair to look at student portfolios of work, which include student work and scores on a variety of assessments. But a system like this would involve lots and lots of money! It's much cheaper to use test-scores in a market-driven environment. And if education becomes totally market-driven, then where is the incentive to invest in complex evaluations systems?

I'm not against applying business principles to make education more efficient, effective, and draw talent to the profession. But public education SHOULD BE a public good and its practices should benefit the students and families (first); then teachers, principals, and other educational personnel; and the public. These constituencies should come before profits and/or nonprofit interests, bottom line!

Submitted by Ken Derstine on July 6, 2012 11:57 pm

Education Grad Student,
Whatever we may think about the use of testing, it's water over the dam because the state legislature has just passed legislation which makes testing 50% of public school teachers (charter school teachers are exempt) rating.

Testing was never used this way before. It was prescriptive to provide a teacher and, in some cases, administration, information for where a student is in the learning process. Having spent part of my teaching career as a Special Education teacher, I always relied on tests to find out where each student was in their development and to find out if they had learned what I taught them.

To use tests to rate a teacher or a school is a perversion of the whole education process. It is a punitive measure with a political agenda for making education a profit making business with tax dollars. It ignores the context of the child's development such as the social economic conditions they live in, past learning, etc. Such a use of tests is akin to a doctor examining a sick patient and, if the patient is found to be sick and the doctor doesn't immediately cure him, the hospital owner fires the doctor and if too many doctors are fired, under this criteria, the hospital is closed.

Teaching is a science and an art. The "reformers" have used new developments in information technology to take the science to an extreme which threatens our public school system nationally. Without the political agenda behind this use of tests, in a sane world, tests would be one useful tool and the new technology would be a great advance for pedagogy. As they are being used, however, they are destroying the ART of teaching. Everyone can name teachers who influenced and inspired them and changed their life for having had them as a teacher. Can the constant testing and their use to terrorize teachers provide a learning situation which will inspire students with a love of learning and develop their critical thinking skills?

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on July 7, 2012 8:40 am

Exactly. And I say this as I am reading "The Freedom Writers Diary" which stands as a testament to all of the Great teachers who truly inspire students in the right way and for the right reasons.

Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on July 6, 2012 10:12 pm

There is an excellent article about the pitfalls of using standardized test scores to evaluate teachers:
Problems with the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers

Submitted by Aimee (not verified) on July 1, 2012 12:24 pm

As a Philadelphia Public School teacher I am grateful that there is a conversation going on about race. I am hoping that in discussing this issue we will make racism less powerful so that how to educate our students can be the larger focus. Thank you Sam and Chris.

Submitted by Geoffrey (not verified) on July 1, 2012 1:46 pm

I too value any discussion around critical issues I find Mr. Paslay's arguments to be seriously flawed. The reality is that his views reflect a kinder, gentler version of the right-wing narratives spun by the tea-party and other extremists.

Submitted by Geoffrey (not verified) on July 5, 2012 4:03 am

I noticed that I posted my reply before finishing.

My concern about Paslay's argument is that he bases his ideas on the fantasy world of Bill Cosby. Mr. Paslay's seems to forget that the 80's were the time when Reagan and Bush brought racism back into vogue, trumpeting the same deficit-based arguments that Paslay's clings to.

To me, arguing for a color-blind society is the privilege of whites who have never had to sacrifice any aspect of their culture or heritage in order to assimilate and succeed.

Submitted by Chad Sansing (not verified) on July 2, 2012 7:21 pm

Sam and Chris, thanks for sharing your conversation with us. Lots to process.

Chris, I would rather have a society in which we treat one another as humble and gracious ambassadors to one another's lives than one in which we are blind to any or all differences between us. I think it's my role as an educator to help students identify and meet their own needs through all the education and support that I and the system can muster for them. Sometimes that means acknowledging the specific and real ways in which students have been hurt before helping students confront and overcome the people and systems that have victimized them. Following the rules an illegitimate authority figure gives you (like pass this test or don't get a credit - or worse) isn't a virtue when the rules work against you. Too many of us educators model keeping our heads down for too many kids. Too many of rush through or evade discussions of privilege, authority, and identity on the way to championing a kind of rugged individualism that just doesn't work for most people; there is one Bill Cosby (and several successful people who beat the odds, but not enough to support any conclusions about how easy "it" is if you just try).

I do think people need to take personal responsibility for their decisions and actions, but I also believe that sometimes people face decisions that leave them only with undesirable (from my privileged, white male perspective) actions from which to choose. That people in difficult situations don't make the decisions we wish they would doesn't mean that we understand the choices facing them or that what we think should have been done could have been done at all. I don't think we learn how to help or be of use by being color-, gender-, class-, or any other kind of -blind in such situations. Blindness in such situations is, paradoxically, cover for judgment, which is seldom a solution to any problem in need of communication, community, trust, constructive feedback, unity, collaboration, and hard work to solve.

Our role as educators shouldn't be to ask people to "rise above skin color" - and I find that phrase pretty fraught with privilege, especially from a disavower of identity politics. Chris, do you mean that we should help people succeed despite the societal constructs in their way, or that we should tear down those constructs? Or do you mean people need to rise above their skin color?

As educators we should instead govern ourselves so that we always present our kids with authentic choices between relevant, fulfilling learning opportunities in our classrooms and schools. We shouldn't dodge the tough conversations (and I don't think that's happening here) and we shouldn't assert that just following the rules, whatever they are on however many worksheets, is the same thing as an empowering, engaging, or otherwise worthwhile education for any child.

Again thanks for opening this conversation to us -

All the best,
Chad Sansing

Submitted by Nancy W. (not verified) on July 3, 2012 1:33 am

Dear Fellow Educators,

As a doctoral student and educator in the Borderlands region of the U.S. (New Mexico, West Texas, Mexico) I have read many of Paulo Freire's books: In addition to Pedagogy of the Oppressed I would recommend Pedagogy of Hope, Pedagogy of Freedom, Pedagogy of Indignation and there are many others. In the college courses I teach I use the book Teachers as Cultural Workers by Freire which is a series of letters to teachers that explains not only his theories but also elucidates concrete actions teachers can take to evolve socially conscious and racially just classroom learning situations leading to teaching/learning praxis. (He does not dwell on striving for equality of the sexes, and in later life he made apologies for this.)

In none of my readings of his texts have I come across any overt or covert racism. Certainly he created situations where his students gained awareness of the issues of class and how they work to oppress certain groups and favor others. However, always his direction was a positive one: towards self exploration and enlivening group actions favoring social justice.

If, by identity politics is meant the expression of the heart and enrichment of the mind through self awareness, then I guess you could say Freire practiced identity politics. Please understand the context. He was working with students who, through racial and class oppression over many generations, had virtually no sense of self. They were the servant class of Brazil and there are many like them all over the world, including the U.S.

It is difficult for people of privilege, such as myself and many other teachers of children and adults who have lived in poverty, both economic and spiritual, to understand that one cannot move in the world from a position of "we are all equal" until one has understood that "I have an identity that is valid and belongs to me."

From my perspective as a teacher of children and adults from a so-called "minority" culture and language, it is vital that we work in our classrooms to encourage in each and every student an authentic understanding and appreciation of self-identity and then we can move into the realm of group relations and social equality. You cannot give up an identity you have never had!

Thanks for your kind attention.
Sincerely, Nancy W.

Submitted by Timothy Boyle on July 3, 2012 8:03 am

Really so happy you guys started this. One of the better threads the comments sections have seen in a very long time. 

Submitted by Frank Murphy on July 5, 2012 7:29 am


This is what a serious, thoughtful and respectful discussion of an important issue should look like.  It is refreshing example of civil discourse.   I appreciate hearing the different perspectives that have been offered.   

Submitted by Denise (not verified) on July 5, 2012 4:31 pm

Thank you Reed for such a straightforward interview. Great conversation. I only wish Paslay had been more straightforward with his responses.

I take issue with his response to this question in particular:

"Reed: But how do we explain our state’s exponential increase in corrections spending compared to its decrease in education spending? Isn't this a systemic governmental problem?"

My reply to Paslay: Discriminatory policies and practices in the education, legal and social justice systems, are not caused by character flaws in the students. Further, addressing the systemic causes and solutions for these issues does not exonerate irresponsible choices by individuals, nor lack of involvement by community members. There are many of educated, hard working young students of color who have become victims of this system of injustice. Conversely, there are plenty of young educated, hard working white students who make mistakes, but nevertheless, do not become ensnared in the legal system. For instance, drug use by white students is prevalent, but they are less-often, and less-severely prosecuted. So if poverty is the cause of the school-to-prison pipeline, it is mainly because a poor student can't afford excellent legal defense.

Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on July 5, 2012 5:53 pm

The exception was in Scranton/Wilkes Berra - the corrupt judges who sentenced students to juvenile detention (for profit) sentenced most white students. That said, the disproportionate jail time given to African American and Latinos for drug related offenses is obviously biased.

Submitted by Denise (not verified) on July 5, 2012 4:34 pm

The most important components of the village concept are love and respect. As long as our underlying sentiments toward students include condescending, self-rigtheoness, or moral superiorty we do not truly respect our students as deserving of a quality education and fair treatment under the law.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 14, 2012 12:43 am

Many criminal attorneys will admit to the bias in the system that leads to unfair sentencing for minorities. The dialogue was very refreshing because within the dissonance of the conversation there are some truths, but my work with homeless teens and dropouts make my view a little different. I agree that we all have choices, but our choices are informed by our awareness of what choices actually exist. We are products of our environment, but I also believe that when many of us are not combined by a common goal for humanity, which I believe to be a very American way of thinking. This is forged by the beauty of our individuality and the belief that if one person succeeds we all can.

The youth I work with have limited choices and many second chances are not offered. The options for them living on the street with limited support services make choice almost a joke. A choice between bad or worse. My children in foster care who have been sexually abused before the age of 5 have even fewer choices presented to them.

The frame of reference that is used to evaluate society and the ills of society may not be as obviously derisive as the 1960's, but the some of the basic attitudes are the reason that since the Cosby Show we have not seen a proliferation of Blacks or Latinos in television and film. And many still think of that show as the gold standard because not much has replaced it.

That is all for now. I enjoyed reading the initial interview and the comments.

Submitted by stevesam (not verified) on October 7, 2014 8:09 am

Wow..You are so lucky to have a chance for talking to a great personality like Paslay. His thoughts and viewpoints on the educational system are so valuable and irreplaceable. I was so flattered by the foresights he does have in making the system more brilliant. see here

Submitted by stevesam (not verified) on October 7, 2014 8:34 am

Wow..You are so lucky to have a chance for talking to a great personality like Paslay. His thoughts and viewpoints on the educational system are so valuable and irreplaceable. I was so flattered by the foresights he does have in making the system more brilliant. see here

Submitted by Jerry (not verified) on February 5, 2015 11:09 pm

As cristopher said schools and education do not exist in a vacuum. so that the people there are not well aware for the best concept of livig life, they have no awarencss about health and education matters also.

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