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There is No One Coming and Other Attempts to Scare Us Into Mobility

simonec's picture

       It is easy to ridicule America’s education system. At this point it is unquestionable that creativity is being stifled on a national level, and that institutions ought to be more cognizant about the diverse ways in which their students learn. My own ability to be critical of the education that I have is contingent upon having had one. Once the achievement gap is closed, I welcome any and all criticisms of our system’s nuances, how we handle ingenuity, or the way classroom discussions are held. The first step is getting everyone in schools and graduating with the proficiency to exist competitively with one another in the “real” world. I believe that the foremost issue in our education system is access, as we have yet to consistently provide students with great public institutions and teachers.

This past summer, during an exercise on education at a national poetry slam festival that I helped to organize, 500 young people, aged 13 – 19, were asked a series of questions. We had just watch “Waiting for Superman”, a documentary about the education system that was highlighted in this September’s issue of “Time” Magazine. The room was asked to “stand up if you attend private school”. My friends snickered, teasing as my classmate Constance and I stood. I made a lame technical arts school joke, feigning pride as I whispered “what-you-know-‘bout welding, son!”  The questions continued: “Stand up if the majority of your friends intend to or currently attend college”. I stood, somewhat straighter this time.

When I did not get the lottery into one of the better middle schools in San Francisco, my family, with great discomfort, enrolled me in private school. They have been guilty ever since, not knowing how to relate to having trusted me to the private education system (yet knowing that they did not trust the public one).

The Schoot Foundations for public education has established four core minimum resources that every child needs to have a “fair and substantive opportunity to learn”( National Summary, ii). They are:

“1.) High-quality early childhood education

2.) Highly qualified teachers and instructors in grades K-12.

3.) College preparatory curricula that will prepare all youth for college, work and community; and

4.) Equitable instructional resources”  ( NS, ii).

These standards seem fairly arbitrary at first glace, as if every school should be able to at least pretend that they can meet the above stipulations. However, there are still schools that do not yet have the footing to make such claims. For example, the Bay Area Sor Juana High School has labeled one quarter of their student body as “Limited English Proficient”(Mendoza-Denton 47). With only four of twenty of their LEP classes counting towards UC or CSU requirements, being labeled as LEP makes it nearly-impossible to receive all the credits one would need to move on to a four-year college (Mendoza-Denton 49). California, a state where “Hispanics make up over 20 percent of the population” has clearly failed to establish a system conductive to assimilation and the fulfillment of the Schoot’s four goals (Mendoza-Denton, 40).

The people at Youth Speaks, a literary arts org that my friend Constance and I organized with, volunteered at, and worked for throughout high school, are proud to see ‘the hommies’ make it. Constance does not tell them that she got into Harvard as well as Columbia, and I don’t go out of my way to explain that I did not need financial aid in order to attend Haverford. We did not have to ‘wait for Superman’ to save us from our educational fates, a sentiment expressed in the film. We had luck and money on our side, enabling us to be statistical anomalies. Constance and I are the definitions of code-switches. Not multilingual, we are multi-dialectical, as we navigated what often feels like a contradiction, as people of color who were mostly well served by our educations.

            The facts are obvious and horrifying: “our achievement gap remains at disastrously high levels, as evidenced by the 2009 NAEP Ling-Term Trend Data, which showed a 53-point gap in reading proficiency between Black and White 17-year-olds and a 33-point gap in math proficiency between Latino and White 17-year-olds” (NS, 1). 42 % of students in Poorly-Resourced, low-performing schools are black, and 35 % are Latino, with 15% of the students white (NS, 8).  

My parents understood that the odds are against me: in this country only 15% of Blacks have access to well-resourced, high-performing schools ( NS, 7), and in California only 21% of kids score at or above the national proficient rate (l of 5).

            By “simply bringing high school graduation rates for disadvantaged students up to those now achieved by the average White, mom-Latino student…” there is an expected 83% decrease in incarceration attributable to equitable access to education for Blacks, and 27% for Latinos.  (NS,11).

In high school my deans accused me of being a drug dealer. They were tipped off about a “short male Asian student” who was allegedly selling marijuana in the lower hallway.  When they arrived in the hallway where they believe this to be happening, the (white) girl I was hanging out with was not even questioned and I was pulled into a room with other students who all fit the profile. My racial-profiling-ACLU-card-carrying-lawyer of a father had a field day.

Racism is born from generalizations and fear, and both seem to stem from underexposure. Education can change these stereotypes, as the racialized reality of incarceration will change. Those who argue that there is some inherent rebellion in people of color are refusing to see the exclusionary systems that have systematically build them thus.

            Some argue that it is additional services that underserviced areas need in order for their children to do better in school. Not only does this ignore that sub-standard educations are also being received in middle class and well resourced majority-white public schools, but the integration of one such program that precedes preschool programming has made “no significant impacts… for make skills, pre-writing, children’s promotion, or teacher report of children’s school accomplishments or abilities in any year” (Tough 3).  As the government has been spending more and more on students, coming in 5th world-wide in cumulative K – 12 education spending per student as of 2006, “ The National Venter for Education Statists reported that in the nation’s high-poverty schools, the average graduation rate for 12th grade students fell from 86 percent in 2000 to 68 percent in 2008” (Ripley, 35; Tough, 4).

I have been lucky in teachers. My well-funded and liberal San Francisco private education has been full of the young, energetic educators that many education reformers call for. Many taught in public schools for a few years and then seem to have “graduated” to my schools, where they were presumably better paid and lived in educational luxury, with ample money for books and computers. Ms. V was so enthusiastic what we all feared she would over-exert herself talking about Shakespeare. Ms. R had us do laps around campus if we looked sleepy in class. Mr. V gained our respect by being straight up scary, enforcing strict rules about attendance and tardiness.  These teachers had more then excellent educations in their pasts – they were actors. Charismatic performers at heart, my most effective educational experiences are associated not with a feeling that my teachers were experts, but rather enthusiasts. Good teachers make you a little scared, and a little excited.

            Time magazine highlighted a few exceptional teachers in their recent study of Memphis public schools. They had other professions before they were teachers, and took a kind of educators “boot camp” in order to be certified to teach without an education degree (Cloud, 48). Programs like Teach for America, that take young gradates and place them in low-income schools for a few years, encourage an accomplished group of young people to teach where others have gotten out of working. However, the issue here is that newly graduated enthusiasts, many ivy leaguers and at the top of their classes, are bound to see teaching as a short-term volunteer opportunity as opposed to a career (Cloud, 48). In a time where 47 % of new teachers come from the bottom third of their graduating college classes, how do we convince aspiring professionals that teaching is an important and prestigious career path (Cloud, 48)?

            In order to be an affective teacher they must “have an understanding of their students’ knowledge, skill levels, and interests” (Bransford et. Al). Sor Juana’s teachers, in their LEP programs, certainly don’t understand what their students know. Some of the children speak exclusively in English with their friends, and are placed in LEP because of speaking too ‘conversationally’ or because their parents speak exclusively Spanish at home. Labeled disruptive in class by her teachers, Alejandra exposes a popular sentiment when asked about her “rowdy” behavior. “’I am bored in class,’ says Alejandra. ‘ What is this? This is a dog… Give me a break! I’d rather get kicked out of class’” (Mendoza – Denton, 49).  Her teachers clearly did not care to or did not have the resources to figure out her background, and so attributed flippant behavior as rude as opposed to sighs of a student who was not being challenged.

            The exciting thing about the issue of accessibility to good educations is that it is unquestionable fixable. As of late, twelve schools have “enacted legislation to require the use of student-performance data in teacher evaluations and tenure decisions” (Ripley, 38). When we can use teacher evaluations to inform decisions about tenure, hopefully good teachers will be rewarded for effective teaching, and we can improve the dialogue around the profession.

The 500 young artists that gathered to see “Waiting for Superman” were all crying by the closing credits. In the final scenes, when the children that the film followed were at a lottery to find out if they got into the charter schools that they applied for, I don’t think that anybody breathed. These kids and their parents are fighting for a chance to participate in a system that I so often disregard as ineffective or stifling. Who are we to judge a system that has yet to even meet its basic purpose? How do we ask a structure without its foundation to continue to grow? I believe that first we have to let our education system do its job, as described, and then we can use ‘big’ word like pedagogy or meta-cognition. Lets get excited teachers paired with excited students, and accept that what’s wrong with the education system is that it is not whole yet.

            As school reformer and advocate Geoffrey Canada says, “If schools aren’t working, it’s the adults” (Ripley, 36). No single group is more motivated or naturally better equipped than another; people want to learn. We are all “goal-directed agents who actively seek information” (Bransford et al.,10).  Education fosters knowledge, and knowledge explicitly restricts and promotes access; to jobs, career opportunities, and admission into certain social and political groups. I believe it to be infinitely more productive to include everyone in the system that currently exists, so that we all have equal opportunity to change and remedy it if we feel it continues to be ineffective, then to let those already in privileged positions talk about larger reform.  Once everyone has the same access in terms of education in general, we can start to change the ways we think about learning and teaching.  Education should always be a process that we are willing to examine and reevaluate, a continual dialogue open to all.




Works Cited


Cloud, John. "How to Recruit Better Teachers." Time 20 Sept. 2010: 46-52. Print. 

Mendonza- Denton. Ed; Galindo, D. Letticia, and María Dolores Gonzales. Speaking Chicana: Voice, Power, and Identity. Tucson: University of Arizona, 1999. Print.

How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School. Ed. John D. Bransford, Ann L. Brown,                          Rodney R. Cocking, M. S. Donovan, and James W. Pellegrino. Washington, D.C.:                                  National Academy. 3-27. Print.

Ripley, Amanda. "A Call to Action for Public Schools." Time 20 Sept. 2010: 32-42.  Print. 

Schoot Foundation for Public Health. National Opportunity to Learn Campaign. Lost                                       Opportunity: A 50 State Report on the Opportunity to Learn in America. The Schott                          Foundation for Public Education, 2009. Web. 24 Sept. 2010. <http://ww              w.otlstatereport.or g/>. 

Tough, Paul. "Don't Drop Out of School Innovation." New York Times. 19 Aug. 2010.  Web. 24 Sept.              2010. < / 08/20/opinion/20tough.html>



Paul Grobstein's picture

the interrelation of assuring access and educational reform

I understand, and very much share, you concern that access to educational opportunities is not equally available across the population.  I am though less inclined than you to wait until everyone "has the same access in terms of education in general" before "we can start to change the ways we think about learning and teaching."  I don't see the access problem as distinct from the more general problem but rather as fundamentally entangled with it.   See educationalization and institutionalization or ? and Education and black males and Education, emotional disturbance, and culture.  An educational system that is committed largely to giving access to a dominant cultural tradition is not one that promotes a "continual dialogue open to all," for anyone (cf The (further) disadvantages of an elite education).  Conversely, an educational system that is genuinely committed to "a continual dialogue open to all" would, I would like to think, necessarily be one that would of necessity assure equal access to everyone. 

simonec's picture

 sorry about the funky works

 sorry about the funky works cited formatting! the computer was not cooperating...