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.