As long as we think of children as needing to be saved from their origins, Megan Rosker writes, we fail to recognize that they all have the same potential.
Yesterday I was passed the review of Steve Brill’s new book by Sara Mosle in The New York Times. Mr. Brill is a lawyer and is best known as the founder of Court TV. In his book, Class Warfare, he examines why America’s schools are failing and repeatedly cites teachers’ unions as being at the core of the problem.
Brill’s book grew out of a 2009 New Yorker article about New York’s “rubber rooms,” where some 600 teachers facing disciplinary review had languished, for three years on average, collecting full salaries and accruing pension benefits as their cases snaked through the labyrinthine, contractually mandated system for terminating employees. Although these men and women represented a minuscule fraction of the city’s 89,000 teachers (and the rubber rooms have since been closed), Brill rightly argues in “Class Warfare” that rules for dismissing ineffective or even grossly negligent teachers are sometimes absurdly onerous, time consuming and costly to many schools. As he notes, even Albert Shanker, for decades the renowned president of the American Federation of Teachers, used to argue that unions had a vested interest in ridding their ranks of incompetence.
Clearly disagreeing with him, Mosle writes:
Yet Brill wants us to believe that unions are the primary—even sole—cause of failing public schools. But hard evidence for this is scarce. Many of the nation’s worst-performing schools (according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress) are concentrated in Southern and Western right-to-work states, where public sector unions are weakest and collective bargaining enjoys little or no protection. Also, if unions are the primary cause of bad schools, why isn’t labor’s pernicious effect similarly felt in many middle-class suburbs, like Pelham, N.Y., or Montclair, N.J., which have good schools—and strong unions?
Mosle stands firm that it is the ongoing socio-economic problems that plague some of America’s worst schools that is at the heart of this, so far, unsolvable educational dilemma. She writes:
Teacher quality may be the most important variable within schools, but mountains of data, going back decades, demonstrates that most of the variation in student performance is explained by nonschool factors: not just poverty, but also parental literacy (and whether parents read to their children), student health, frequent relocations, crime-related stress and the like.
Both make excellent arguments and both present solutions that will benefit students in the short term. However, what are we going to do to permanently fix education in America? What is the long-term solution?
Teachers unions, poorly performing teachers, and socio-economic problems all contribute to the complications that blemish academics in America, but are any of these the root of the problem? Absolutely not. The problem with taking either one of these sides in the reform debate is that they are two sides of the same coin. It makes no difference what side you choose; you are still talking about a coin. In this case, you are still talking about failing students.
So, what is at the heart of this vicious circle? What is the point that both Mosle and Brill miss?
Underlying the failure of America’s poorest students is the feeling that their voice, their experience, and what they have to offer doesn’t matter to our society. And the truth is they have as much to offer as any other student in the education system. If we want to turn our schools around, parents and students of these communities must have a sense of worth about their presence in our culture.
In many poor minority homes, the mother is the only parent active in the child’s life. From her childhood she believes she is unwanted, worthless, and is left to live off the charity of the nation. From the moment of conception many of these students are seen as a burden on society, a blemish that now must be dealt with. This belief is handed down generation after generation and upheld by society. Neither mother nor child is honored with the respect that should be given new life and the new potential that comes with that life.
If we focus on changing how we view mothers, there will be a trickle down effect. Their children will benefit, their grandchildren will benefit, and so on. They will feel they have a place; their children have a place and will hold up this vision of importance as something that must be maintained and kept sacred. Mothers will hold their children to a new and better standard. Their sense of pride will be restored and the mother can uphold that standard of excellence for their child.
Any time we believe we have to uplift a group of people, uncover their assets, and figure out how they will benefit our culture, we have already dishonored and disrespected the fundamental and innate gifts they have the potential of offering our world. If we believe we must pull them out from the dregs of the ghetto, then we inherently place ourselves above them. We keep in place the class and race structure that we have been working uphill against for the past 200 years. It’s like putting out a fire with gasoline.
If the solution is for reformers like Ms. Mosle to continuously pull disadvantaged students up the social ladder, then they will never be out of a job. The cycle will continue forever, and these children and their parents will never evolve the dignity they deserve.
It is our constant belief that there are those who are better than others in our society that keeps us handicapped to succeed. No one is born with more or less potential than another. A child in east L.A. is not born with less potential than Mr. Brill or Ms. Mosle, but because of class and race they are less likely to succeed.
This ongoing cycle of dishonoring some groups, while raising up others, is the dilemma.
We are at a critical juncture in history when we can finally disable a race and class system that has defined how our country operates. As our eyes have become more open to the disadvantages of functioning with these rules, we are struggling to find a new way to way to function. And that is where we are now. That is why we find ourselves slinging mud and pointing fingers, but unable to really get at the root of problem.
The sooner we can admit and humble ourselves to the fact that our educational system grew out of a society that, at the time was, sickened with racism and classism, the sooner we can reconcile our differences and heal our misconceptions. We can finally relax into the idea that all children are created equal, no matter where they are born or under what circumstances. They come to us as a blank slate. It is our ideas about who they are that eventually taint their ability to succeed.
—Photo Liz (perspicacious.org)/Flickr