Saturday, October 28, 2006

System infiltrated

Few Americans would be surprised to discover that our educational system is flawed, perhaps irreparably. But fewer realize the extent to which these flaws are binding themselves, as if carefully, with society, so that the institution’s very defects are crucial elements in a kind of symbiotic relationship between this particular institution and the whole of our society.

When I bought myself a college education and walked off to join Teach for America, I never fashioned myself their poster-child. I have far more sense than that, I suppose. Although I could never have predicted the extent of my classroom management challenges or my principal’s malice, I certainly predicted my own skepticism for anything with a brand name. The “this is why I teach for America” stories are so formulaic that they could probably be synthesized with the aid of a computer program, a la The Postmodern Essay Generator. Or Madlibs. No: what drew me to accept the job (they refer to it as “the challenge”) was the twofold mission that the organization professes: to make immediate impact on students in my own classroom, and to make long-term systemic change with the positions that my experience would afford me.

I will leave the verdict on my “immediate” impact to the statheads (as prominent in this organization as in sabermetric baseball chatrooms) and the children – immediate impact, after all, does not really evidence itself immediately. However, the hope for long-term systemic change is, ironically, the one thing I feel that I can already judge. My studies have not been exhaustive, so whether systemic improvement is possible or the best means toward reaching it are not my aim. Rather, I can speak to the current trend that Teach for America, scrambling school systems, the government, and most other factions of whom I’m aware are perpetuating.

Depending on which study you read, the experts measure the achievement gap as something between three and four years. In other words, as a group, students of color (well, black and Latino) in our country at, say, age 17, have attained the basic educational skills of a white student of 13 or 14. No Child Left Behind, the revised version, has professed to address this issue with its bold statement that it will not consider schools to be meeting their AYP (Average Yearly Progress) unless certain at-risk subgroups, like racial groups and families that are economically disadvantaged, meet the same standards as their privileged peers. Similarly, Teach for America trains its corps members to set high “Big Goals” for their students and cites various studies to support the success of this, similar to the studies of Vincent Rascigno (1998) that proved that high teacher expectations had positive effects on students (while, for example, the effect of per-pupil expenditure was statistically insignificant). Struggling school systems have allowed many charter schools to crop up like bacilli, often scoring as dismally as their public school neighbors – who claim that the difference is that they, at least, make high achievement and high expectations their business.

However, each of these, which sometimes seem to be at odds, are equally distant from some brutal realities. I do not claim to have the monopoly on insight because of some newfound welcome-to-the-real-world skepticism. Nevertheless, this experience has showed me a few things. The first is that almost every faction is attempting to educate these students on the wrong side of the achievement gap by teaching them how to succeed in a system that has been designed so that they will fail. Setting the same “high expectations” is not enough if it is not accompanied by a serious reexamination, perhaps re-creation, of the standards by which we are forcing our children to use every effort to attain. Standardized tests are so flawed that my alma mater has garnered recent publicity for forswearing them in admissions requirements. ESL, still pervasive despite studies that argue for bilingual education, forces students to write in English before students have mastered their native language. And the ideals of our educational system are so distant from the realities of our society that many students in less-than-idyllic neighborhoods create two separate identities in order to survive (but rarely to thrive) at school.

Paulo Freire, educator and theorist from Brazil, is best known for his Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which opposed “banking” education – akin to the idea of the tabula rasa. Among his many criticisms of contemporary education was his disapproval of the dichotomy between teacher and student, and he found that the mutual respect between equals contributing to an educational experience with the whole self proved more successful than the more frequented methods of education. Other theorists have supported the view that community-based education is the most successful, particularly with struggling student bodies; they have also evidenced the deleterious effect of an education that denies the full investment of the self. However, the system as it currently exists – the same system that most institutions and organizations encourage students to submit to in order to emerge successfully – denies the full investment of the self in its very nature. Certainly, the aims of education should include the attainment of literacy, mathematical and technical knowledge, and a breadth of other subject understanding. These aims, however, too often are positive side effects of American meritocracy. And well-meaning institutions and educators – carrying the message of “high and equal expectations” – too often stand for serving in a role akin to that of a cheerleader, one who ignores the fact that his candidate has been forced to amputate his limbs while, unlike his competitors, he has not been granted wings.

In other words, as long as our system is a meritocracy (and what else could those entrenched in capitalism imagine?) and as long as that meritocracy continues to deny “wings” – equipment to succeed – to its least educated – we can not expect equal and high expectations to be met. This is true, at least, as long as we pander to those with so-called social capital, who set the standards for success. In this black-and-white pass-fail dichotomy, the social capital and whole personhood that persons of color and impoverished Americans of all races possess is relegated to a curiosity commodified by the mainstream culture. It is the stuff of entertainment, not of education. Thus are the children of this side of the proverbial track forced into a split-identity existence if they are to succeed at all. It can be done, and it might be true that a few of these students will emerge stronger, but the system continues to relegate the vast majority of them to failure. Teachers, too, are forced by the system into pseudo-superior roles because standards and objectives are ours for the distribution – and because American culture forces us to be disciplinarians before we are educators.

Oddly, this is why I teach for America, but it’s not the message I’m supposed to be giving. I am not teaching because I want to create a system-wide change in which all teachers hold these sought-for high expectations, per se. I am not teaching merely because of the students in my school, though indeed they are an incentive. Rather, I am teaching because I don’t want to be part of the problem. I don’t want to be one of the privileged who collects diverse acquaintances and habits like charms on a bracelet – and this is more than mere vanity. My goal is that I can learn from my students and from my experience so that maybe I can neither pander to the system nor fight it. My goal is to recreate it, from the ground up – even if my contribution is only in the form of a much better-informed essay I’d be able to write two years from now. When I was in school, I learned a lot of fancy language that enabled me to write this essay, and students will generally be considered successful if they learn to do the same. I don’t want my students to write an essay, though – unless they write one because they mean it.


Petra said...

This is wonderful, Di. I feel the same way. Oh, you've no idea how fucking annoyed and angry when people whine whine whine - not realising that by not DOING anything, they're part of the problem.

John A. Atchley III said...

This idea of "meaning it" is interesting in that I think it very successfully moves beyond the problem you identify with current educational standards. If mainstream educational practice is hampered by its concern with quanitative measures of success, then this fostering of intent, belief, and intellectual passion seems its necessary opposite.

With this said, I've always wondered, and perhaps you could provide insight, whether a way to further erase the dichotomy between teacher and student would be the introduction of politics to education in a fundamental way? I don't know how this would work pedagogically in elementary school, but certainly as students move through middle school and into highschool I wonder if "multiculturalism" and other "liberal" notions of a polyglot society might not neutralize the ability of students to become vested passionately in their academic work.

An analogy would be the media: in order to risk offense (i.e. in order to make the most money by catering the largest sector of the population) the Western (and especially the American) media has pursued a doctrine of neutrality. This is visible when conservatives accuse the NY Times of being a liberal rag and vice versa with liberals and Fox News.

My feeling has always been, well who cares? If I learned nothing from my years in academia, it was that everything is, in its last instance, political. There is no speech that doesn't imply a political sentiment. Wouldn't a better goal be the recognition of these latent political charges so that we might set them at each other and have a more propery dialectical and dialogical society? (Our current society avoids confrontation and ideological warring at all costs, unless of course it takes place within the narrow context of media sensationalism).

That said, back to education: without using political terminology like "Democrat" and "Republican", couldn't teachers found their classrooms around debate? Put race on the table, socio-economic inequalities, religious differences. Not every child will be able to talk about these things with the same sets of language, but nor should every child. Children might even say something valued by society as racist or innapropriate. But should we be afraid of these things? If the teacher merely acts as the facilitator of these conversations, doesn't every child, regardless of their intellectual accuity or background have something to say about the fundamental problems of our society?

As a student, and I know I was a privileged student in every way imaginable, I always felt that a distaste for the education process stemmed from the transparency of the coddled environment in which learning took place.

In this political model, higher standards refer to a student's ability to think about his or her own place in the world, not their ability to succeed on a test that has been thrust upon them by the powers-at-be in a world that is relentlessly excised from the school environment. I suppose then that what I'm really curious about is what happens if, in following with Freire's disintegration of student-teacher hierarchies, we also begin to disintegrate the colloquial distinctions between school and the "real world". No longer school as a preparation for some abstract future, but school as synonymous with the "world-out-there".

Of course, this would mean teachers and parents would have to become less afraid of the directions students might lead themselves. But if our fundamental value is the perpetuation of democracy than we can't be expecting a singular ideology to emerge from our education facilities anyway.

Anyhow, a bit scattered, but, dammit, I always wanted to debate more in school about things I knew to be going on in the world.

Diana M. Gauvin said...

To a certain extent, I agree with you enthusiastically. In my (rather priveleged) educational past, I feel like I have learned most in situations that encouraged and facilitated deep dialogue. Even in my school days, I had a few teachers that integrated the kinds of experiences that you describe. However, integrating them to the extent that it becomes the foundation for a kind of pedagogy causes a few more issues.

John Dewey underscored that education serves a "social" function -- or, to put it more accurately, that the individual and society should not be dichotomized, and that school serves as an important stage of the development of the relationship between the two. Furthermore, "learning by doing" (and dialogue is included in "doing") was among the fundamental aspects of his progressive education. At some point after World War II -- probably when the US realized that technology is important in a hostile world -- most schools de-emphasized progressivism in favor of more highly knowledge/skill-based learning.

Dewey may be back these days -- somewhat, and selectively, in the more priveleged upper-middle-class schools -- but I hesitate to embrace it entirely, and not for the same reasons as mid-century theorists. Here's what I see: I see a world dominated by media, and although I disagree with those who would censor it, I also hesitate to rescind the "secular" but comfortable aspects of education. In other words, I worry that if education is, from the beginning, entirely built around dialogue with no agenda or influence at all, then children will have no choice but to be entirely influenced by the media, the opinions of hteir parents, and the realities of their lives, which can at times be very limiting, even in triune combination.

Now I sound like I am disagreeing with myself -- after all, didn't I advocate for education being more closely linked with a "whole" identity? -- but I am not. However, I do feel that students require a basic foundation -- not of knowledge; that's obvious and trite -- of the opinions that they are expected to tout and argue. History, literature, political theory, and the like. Certainly, these need to be applied to the "real world," but the limited real world with which students have experience needs, well, to be supplemented. A brilliant lecture of my pet author (Pullman) advocated for a "literary school of morals," which is pretty similar... check out if you're interested.

Debate and "politics" should start early and often, but I think at first they should be highly limited in scope and much more facilitated. As a student's understanding, experience, and familiarity increase, so should the freedom of the dialogues.

That's my two cents, anyhow.

Anonymous said...

System wide change blah blah…destroy capitalism blah blah blah…Teach For America is working within the constraints of the system because it realizes that rhetoric proposing some kind of revolution is pure masturbation. Sure overturning capitalism and meritocracy would be great, but it aint gunna happen any time soon. Capitalism and meritocracy are gaining strength. Considering the circumstances, an attempt to empower urban youth within the constraints of meritocracy is pretty admirable.