by Josh Yarden
Some people like the idea that education is the great leveler of the playing field. They believe, or at least they repeat the slogan that everyone can attain the American dream if they work hard enough in school. The truth tells a different story: A great education puts you ahead of the game, but that advantage is for a select few, not for everyone. The World Series and The Superbowl may be played on level fields, but most people, even those who try their very hardest, never have an opportunity to attend the game.
If you want to examine social inequality in America, the easiest place to begin is by taking a look at the socio-economic stratification of our schools. We have several parallel educational systems. Among them are elite private schools funded by foundations and private citizens, well-funded public schools in communities with relatively affluent populations, some high quality magnet public schools that do not offer open access to all students, more schools that are funded below desired levels, and many crowded under-resourced public schools. A more detailed look at the nature of poverty points toward particular issues such as homelessness, absenteeism, illness, the low educational levels of parents and substance abuse, among others. Politicized issues such as vouchers, school choice and test scores create a lot of noise that drowns out some of the most important signals communities are sending about the real issues that impact the quality of American education.
There seems to be an insatiable desire in some corners of American society to discover the silver bullet. We want a hero to ride into town on a white horse, clean up corruption and… Hi-Yo Silver! Away!… then leave us alone. We don't like paying taxes, and we don't like it when public officials spend our money on someone else's issue. But decades of reform initiatives have proven time and again that there are no silver bullets.
What works in Education?
There are three essential components—schools, educators and families—with the potential to contribute to a sustained stable educational experience for children. There is no such thing as a good school without good educators, and even good schools can only enjoy limited success if many of the children's families are in distress.
Schools – What characterizes an environment that is conducive to learning?
A school environment that is conducive to learning is a place where children can grow, take initiative under the guidance of supportive educators and learn through reflective trial and error. Children need a space where they can be free from intimidation, where they are encouraged to explore and to expand their comfort zones, and to discover who they have the potential to become. The broad goal of a good education is to enable a young people to become competent life-long independently motivated learners with good judgement. Attaining knowledge is about learning how to find facts, but even more than that, it is about developing the sound judgement to recognize problems as they arise, and to know how to apply strategies for problem solving, preferably before problems spin out of control. The more a school functions like a laboratory, a think tank, or a hub of creative engagement, the more children can learn how to discover what they need to know.
Educators – What are the characteristics of a master teacher?
Teachers need to be well-prepared, well-supported and encouraged to be active learners throughout their careers. They, of course, need to be knowledgable in their fields, but their job is not merely to teach the academic disciple they have studied. Their responsibility is to help children become effective learners. Teachers are just one source of knowledge in the contemporary classroom. They are also facilitators and resources for learning. Demonstrating their own process of learning is at least as important as telling students what they know.
Enriching teachers-as-learners enables educators to lead by example in the classroom. When teachers find satisfaction in their own process of exploration and discovery, work more collaboratively, more joyfully and more productively, they reduce their risk of burning out from frustration and exhaustion on the job.
A system that is compelled to do more with less each year is bound to fail. When classes are crowded, children are stressed and the support systems are not in place, there is little or no energy to devote to enabling children to collaborate on projects, develop critical thinking skills or experience the joy of discovery that promotes real learning. Worse yet, if teachers are evaluated and possibly also retained based on student standardized test results, schools inevitably become test prep centers.
Families – How can relatives be effective role models?
A dedicated parent or guardian finds some time, at least some time, on a regular basis, to take an interest, to ask questions, to learn about a child's cares, concerns and fears, to learn something about their friends, something about what they think about their teachers, to help them work through challenges which they find perplexing, without condescension or disrespect for the world of the child. Children who learn that parents are not there to help them work through the complexities of their lives will not respond positively when that parent shows up to tell them what to do. Inattentive parents who arrive on the scene and attempt to command respect because their children are in trouble are going to face challenges for which their experience may not have prepared them to succeed. They may not know the situation well enough, or perhaps even know their own children well enough to act wisely in a crisis. Inappropriate reactions to serious problems can cause delicate situations to evolve into crises.
Dysfunctional relationships can be repaired over time, but they are likely to become even more dysfunctional when stressed by multiple complications. Even in a healthy relationship, adjustments are needed from time to time. This is one of the characteristics of a high functioning relationship: Relationships that grow and shift over time require care, consideration and thoughtful communication. Relationships that get too set in their ways inevitably lose their vitality, become burdensome, like carrying around dead weight. Feeling that a personal relationship is always weighing you down is a pretty reliable indicator that problem solving is going to be messy and complicated.
Great parents are not necessarily the ones with the most money to spend on their children, and not necessarily the ones who have the most time to spend with their children. What great parents have and what they are capable of sharing is a deeply rooted concern for their children's best interests, as well as an ability to be their kids' strong and consistent advocates. In other words, they do not simply show up when there is a problem to be solved (if they show up at all.) Parents can empower their children and their children's schools with their high integrity, consistent behavior and supportive aspirational expectations.
These are the main characteristics of the village it takes to raise a child. If they are present in some combination, children will learn and thrive, but take away these key ingredients and no amount of standardization or testing will provide a solution. It should come as no surprise that if different schools prepare different students for the same tests, standardization will reinforce the social stratification of the haves and the have-nots. It does not matter if the system is called ‘A level playing field,' ‘No child left behind,' ‘Race to the top,' ‘Common core state standards' or ‘The next big thing.' What's in a name, after all? A broken promise by any other name will still smell as foul.
Liberation as a way of being
“Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” may have ignored inequality and even tolerated slavery in the early years of the United States, but the nation has evolved, and liberation has come to mean one thing: We all deserve to thrive, unleashing the full potential of the human spirit, embracing creative engagement of individuals in open communities, while rejecting the fear, hostility and insatiable greed that characterize oppression.
Recognizing that these rights are universal and yet remain unfulfilled underscores the need to develop sustainable systems to protect everyone, especially the most vulnerable among us, from injustice and exploitation. Schools funded primarily by the local real estate taxes of towns and cities with severely limited financial resources cannot provide quality public education, and they certainly cannot contribute to coping with the challenges associated with poverty. We need to reconfigure the funding system or simply admit that schools are designed to reenforce the existing socioeconomic gaps in American society.
We need to ensure that all of our schools embody the practice of forming a more perfect union based on the principle of liberty and justice for all. Let's send that message to our elected officials, require a sustained effort that achieves results and set some standard for what it means to be a public official. And let's exercise our democratic right to suspend our representative's terms in office if they cannot uphold the standards we set for them.