Sunday, February 9, 2014

#151 February 9, 2014- Race, Poverty and Education

Race, Poverty and
Education- Divide and Conquer. . .
Our public schools are not perfect places.  This shouldn't be a startling statement, after all, they reflect a society that is constantly grappling with a host of issues.  The reflect a society that has struggled to find ways to meet its lofty goals of freedom and opportunity for all citizens.  Our public schools exist within a context that makes it difficult for educators, families, students and the community to create a reality that lives up to our expectations.  We are constantly searching for reasons why our efforts fall short of our potential.  While there are many individual reasons why students struggle to succeed in schools, when we talk about Achievement Gaps there are two main causes that are put forth.

Some argue that the issues revolve around race.  When you look at the data it is clear that we have a real problem in our schools with the achievement of specific groups of students.  It is just as clear that the same groups that struggle in our schools, also struggle in our society in general.  This doesn't absolve our public schools of responsibility, but it does demonstrate that our societal difficulties in dealing with diversity are not exclusive to our public education systems.  

Others argue that the struggles of our students are tied more closely to poverty.  Once again, this assertion is supported by data.  Our students who live in poverty, no matter what their other demographic characteristics, don't succeed at a level that their middle and upper class peers achieve.  This is reflected in society outside of our public schools as well.  A person's social-economic class is relatively fixed and very difficult to change.   

These two sides have been competing for years.  As a public educator I have seen initiatives started to address student achievement and race, and I've seen initiatives started to address student achievement and poverty.  I've seen these two positions played against each other and I've seen students and educators lose because of these battles.  Dwindling school funding has been poured into targeted efforts to address achievement of specific groups and subgroups as though we can somehow separate the different aspects of our students' lives from others with any degree of success. 

So many factors play into our achievements in life.  Am I personally successful because of my status as a white male?  I certainly didn't achieve at the level I was capable of during my own public school days.  In fact, it wasn't until I reached my mid-twenties that I really started to achieve any degree of measurable success.  Did I benefit from my status as a part of a middle-class family?  I'm sure that gave me more leeway to take an indirect path to the place I occupy today.  I know that I enjoyed some benefits because of my different demographic characteristics.  Yet, at the same time they were not guarantees of success.  I know that many of my peers who share similar backgrounds with me have gone many different directions. 

In the end, success or failure is not only difficult to define and quantify, but it is also difficult to determine the single greatest reason for each individual's outcomes in any aspect of their life.  Our lives are so complex and involve so many different variables that we can rarely identify a single cause for any result. To try and point to any single characteristic as being the sole reason we succeed or fail is not only virtually impossible, but I also believe is counterproductive.

What happens is that we pit different groups against each other and end up failing to address the problems that we hope to solve.  Are many of the students who are failing in our schools African-American?  Yes.  Are many of the students who are failing in our schools English Language Learners?  Yes.  Are many of the students who are failing in our schools living in poverty?  Yes.  Do many of the students who are failing in our schools belong to multiple groups that are struggling in schools and society?  Yes.  Do we have students from all different demographics who are succeeding and failing?  Yes.    

How do we determine whether it was poverty, or some other factor that caused the struggles or successes of any given student?  How do we define success and failure in our school system?  How do we work to address these problems and attempt to meet individual student needs?  These three questions are often grouped together and are topics of intense debate. 

Yet, while we debate the answers to these questions, real human beings are grappling with realities that will shape their future.  We see different groups pitted against each other when the truth is, they share the same goals for our public schools and for every student who attends them.  As an educator I often see that strategies that work to effectively educate students of one demographic are just as applicable to other groups.  While we may need to change a few aspects of our structures or delivery, students are students just like people are people. 

The more that we try and isolate causes, the more we try to quantify and institutionalize successes, the further we travel down the road towards segregation and divisive policies that pit different groups within our school communities against each other.  Our public schools can be most successful when we work together as a community to support all of our children. 

The only way that we can work together as a community, is if we are able to talk, discuss and dispute together as well.  Unfortunately, too many conversations occur in isolation and too many voices are not heard when we talk about our public schools and those who work and learn in them.  This is the case at all levels, local to national, and on all topics.  We hear from a select few, but the majority of the families who rely on public schools to educate their children are silent. 

This silence exists for many reasons, but it certainly is a real problem when we try and develop solutions to the many challenges that our schools, educators and students face.  It is a silence that is accepted, and even welcomed by some.  The silence of families allows for some leaders to claim to speak for the underrepresented populations, but doesn't force them to truly be accountable to those they claim to speak for. 

The result is a collection of policies that sound good, and that sound like progress is being made towards addressing the inequities in our schools.  However, the promises and progress is based on flawed logic and often guided by profits, not results.     

Once again, this isn't a phenomena that is exclusive to public education.  The same forces are at work in our political and economic policies as well.  

In the end, does race matter?  Yes.  Does socio-economic class matter?  Yes.  Do people matter?  Yes!!  We need to shift our focus back to people and what works for real individuals.  We need to have conversations about issues that may be difficult, but that focus on the realities of our current situation.  Policy makers need to actively seek out the ideas of those that they represent and craft solutions to problems based on what works for people, not what works best for our existing systems, those who are in charge, and those who are currently benefitting the most. 

Along the way to finding real solutions it is true that we will need to deal with issues around race, gender, language and poverty.  However, in order to find lasting solutions we will need to find answers to our most challenging questions that work for all the people in our society.  For me, this is why our public school systems have the potential to be the cornerstone to building an America that meets our Founding Documents lofty ambitions.  If we can craft a system that unites all citizens in an effort to achieve a common goal that benefits our entire society we will truly have done something amazing.  This begins with an effort to address the problems we face, not in isolation and in cutthroat competition, but in a spirit of community, compassion and with an eye on our society's future.  A future embodied in all our community's children. 

The Good, The Bad, and
The Ugly. . .
The Good: It's always good to see recognition of the efforts to combat education "reforms" by people around America.

Education is a serious topic, but there's always room for some fun.

The Bad: The fact that we are so concerned about money and where it is coming from overshadows the issues that should drive our electoral process.  

The Ugly: People have the right to protest in the manner of their choice.  I find it frustrating that this movement to boycott Girl Scout Cookies is gaining traction among members of an ideology that was so vehemently opposed to public employees exercising their rights to protest.  Not to mention that it is a misguided and narrow minded effort.  

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