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Passive Oppression in Education: Fueling the Achievement Gap

Many students in districts across the nation are faced with issues of poverty, racism, and oppression in their communities and schools. Educators and administrators are uncertain about how to meet the needs of students, especially students of color living in poverty. The fact is that too many educators, for a variety of reasons, have simply surrendered to the forces of poverty and racism. In the process they have also surrendered our children’s future (Yes We Can, 2005). This sad submission contributes to the academic achievement gap for our Hispanic, Native American, and Black youth. According to the 2013 results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP):

The test scores indicate that Black, Hispanic, and Native American students in the fourth and eighth grades scored significantly lower than their White peers in reading and math. Moreover, Black, Hispanic, and Native American students demonstrate proficiency in reading and math at much lower levels than White students and perform below basic in these subject areas at much higher rates than White students.

The issue of surrendering to the forces of poverty and racism is referred to by Allen G. Johnson (2009) as passive oppression in our educational system. Passive oppression fuels the achievement gap for our poorest and commonly marginalized students. It contributes to a culture of power and privilege for certain school communities, leaving our underserved students of color and their communities behind.

Privilege and a System of Oppression

Johnson speaks of passive oppression as a form of racism and privilege, and defines it as “making it possible for oppression to happen simply by doing nothing to stop it” (Johnson 2009, p. 106). I have witnessed this issue of privilege and power in my communities, and believe it greatly impacts schools across the nation. After discussing these issues with many of my colleagues, I have come to believe that the lack of action and indifference on the part of many educators is indeed a result of passive oppression. The majority of school administrators and teachers care about students and seem to be overwhelmed with the task of meeting a variety of social, emotional, and educational needs. Many lack the skills, resources, and even the will to deal with many of those unique needs. The problem is in their failure to understand that this power of silence, “promotes privilege and oppression” and that racism and other forms of privilege depend on this type of day-to-day, real world oppression (Johnson 2009, p. 105). The key is to help educators begin to see themselves as enablers of an oppressive system every time they choose to explicitly ignore dealing with the problems that lead to the achievement gaps faced by students of color and students living in poverty.

The Power of Silence- What can I change?

We can begin to change this system of inequity and oppression in a number of ways.

  • Acknowledge the existence of passive oppression and privilege and its impact on our educational system. “Privilege is always at someone else’s expense and always exacts a cost. Everything that’s done to receive or maintain it — however passive and unconscious — results in suffering and deprivation for someone” (Johnson, 2009).
  • Look in the mirror. Does your silence and the silence of your colleagues regarding issues of race, language, or gender promote privilege for some and inequity for others?
  • How do you contribute to passive oppression? Ask yourself:

What are my expectations for students of color? Females? Students in poverty? English learners?

What is your school’s approach to discipline? Are suspension and expulsion rates disproportionate?

Are certain learning opportunities, field trips, or resources only available for a privileged few? Is there a system of equity and support for families who lack financial resources and access?

  • Speak up and challenge the status quo. Ask questions and engage in conversations with your peers and administrators about racism and the achievement gaps that exist in your schools.

The issue of passive oppression isn’t about making anyone feel guilty, it’s about acknowledging our privilege and doing better for every student. Historically marginalized groups, including students who live in poverty, deserve the same level of rigor and learning opportunities as others.

Serving All Students

Many underserved students of color living in poverty continue to fall behind their peers in school districts across the nation. Educators and educational leaders must embrace this reality and make themselves accountable for the learning and academic success of all learners. This begins by acknowledging the privilege, power, and racism that exist in our educational system. Passive oppression in our schools is a form of racism and privilege that must be overcome. If we continue to remain silent about these issues, we are communicating to our students and communities living in poverty that they are not worth serving.

“Although reforming public schools will not eliminate poverty or racial discrimination, education continues to be the only legitimate source of opportunity available to the poor.”- Pedro Noguera

Johnson, A. (2006). Privilege, power, and difference. Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Noguera, P. (2008). The trouble with black boys: Race, equity, and the future of education. San Francisco: Wiley & Sons.

The Education Trust. (2006, September). Yes we can: Telling truths and dispelling myths about race and education in America. Retrieved from: myths-about-race-and-education-in-America



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