On One Hand

March 10, 2010

The Current Debate Over American Education is Classist

Filed under: culture,social justice — ononehand @ 9:29 pm
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You can’t convince me how you believe in the potential of kids from low-income, failing schools, and then in the same breath argue that people who grew up in those schools are bad candidates to be teachers.

But that’s what a recent article in Newsweek seems to do, in a discussion of the need to fire teachers whose students underperform, and the need to recruit new teachers who came from more prestegious colleges.

I don’t dispute the article’s sentiment towards bad teachers, but this quote from a sidebar in the Newsweek article caught my eye: in “2000, 37% of teachers [came] from colleges with SAT scores in the lowest 5%,” explaining that this happens because teaching is an “undesirable” fall-back job.

The SAT, like the ACT and every standardized test, does not measure intelligence: it measures the value of your pre-college education. So if the public education system is flawed – and the Newsweek article argues yes, it is – it seems ridiculous to be judging students or their colleges on what their SAT scores were or what their school’s average SAT scores were. Consider also that a college with SAT scores in the lowest 5% are not representing the lowest 5% of students, but rather, the lowest 5% SAT-scoring colleges, which still select from higher-performing high school graduates and represent closer to the 50th percentile of all students.

Essentially, the statement in Newsweek is like saying low-income people who graduated from urban schools with average test scores and worked their way through school at the city college are a black stain on the educational system as teachers, compared to students who went to major universities and lived in the dorms. This is a prime example of the politics of privilege.

Yes, there are myrad problems with schools in America, which is why, as Newsweek itself cites, kids who grow up in low-income households underperform middle-class students, and black and hispanic kids underperform white kids in public schools year after year. It has been a permanent problem plaguing the country and proving that some injustice is taking place. And while teacher incompetence might be a factor in school districts everywhere, it does not explain the fullness of this disparity.

Poverty is one of the most obvious unaddressed factors here, but here’s something else that stands a chance of explaining much of this issue. The vast majority of teachers are white and come from middle-class backgrounds. In schools where the majority of students are Hispanic or black, the white teachers are a “ruling class” of sorts in an intrinsically sensitive situation as the ones making crucial decisions for and wielding authority over people who are different from them. We know that to grow up white in America is to be instilled with subtle and overt cues that your own culture, values and experiences are superior; considering the power a teacher has over her or his students, it would be so easy for conscious and unconscious biases to affect the students. Teacher training programs often pay some lip-service to diversity, but cannot be truly effective unless they are led and organized by people from diverse backgrounds who aren’t afraid to “go there.”

Perhaps the fact that white, middle-class people who have not been thoroughly trained in anti-racism dominate the American teaching class is responsible for some of the following facts:

• Statistically, black and Latino students recieve receive harsher punishments for misbehavior in school compared to white students, which has costly psychological effects that impact learning.

• As an ultimate extension of this problem, black students are more likely to be suspended or expelled from school than students of any other race, resulting in absence from the classroom that causes them to fall behind in learning.

• Statistically, black students – particularly boys – are more likely to be placed in special ed when they don’t need to be, which results in confusion and reduced learning among those who don’t belong there.

• Statistically, black and Latino students, as well as female students, are less likely to be recommended for gifted programs by their teachers. Many schools in poor districts are less likely to have gifted programs in the first place.

These are all extreme cases that have measurable proof, but I could have brought in many more links. And if all these things are true, I think it would indicate that more subtle attitudes that privilege whiteness, “giftedness” and middle-class experience are definitely present dividing students and teachers.

Teachers across America, who are mostly white, are obviously not adequately trained to handle a racially-diverse, income-diverse and ability-diverse group of students. This is not to dog on teachers; it just seems to be the fairest and most precise explanation for why it is consistently the nonwhite and low-income students who have lower average test scores and struggle with the lowest graduation rates. Teachers are verifiably misenterpreting social and cultural differences as learning disabilities. Teachers are verifiably singling out people of color for extra dicipline. Teachers are verifiably less likely to recognize hard work and achievement in students who are not white. The way that these things work is subtle: the actions that perpetrate inequalities may be subconscious and un-self-recognized. You may not be able to easily single out individual teachers and say “you’re racist” or “you’re sexist,” but the way the system ia working makes it so: the facts are indesputable.

So this other Newsweek excerpt struck me as well: “About 20 years ago, a Princeton senior named Wendy Kopp wrote her senior thesis proposing an organization to draw graduates from elite schools into teaching poor kids. Her idea was to hire them for just a couple of years, and then let them move on to Wall Street or wherever. Today, Teach for America sends about 4,100 grads, many from Ivy League colleges, into inner-city schools each year.”

I’ve written about my issues with the Teach for America program in the past, but the way it was put here struck me as an enormous conceit that parallels my thoughts on privilege in education. Somehow, it suggests, ivy-leaguers are so genetically or dispositionally superior to everyone else that their 6 weeks of training before they teach is superior to the years of teaching experience and cultural experience shared by the teachers already in that district. It suggests that 22-year-old Berkely graduates are the crucial element that will revolutionize poor school districts and communities. It reminds me of the white hero narrative we often see in American film (acknowledging that TFA members are mostly but not all white and their students are not all people of color), and it turns out that research varies drastically when it comes to the corps’ effectiveness for students and on its ability to empassion its teaching staff. (Naturally, the studies the organization cites about itself are only the positive ones.) A young person’s passion and enthusiasm may contribute something positive to students, and the organization is good at instilling its corps with the most up-to-date research on pedagogy, which a 10-year teacher may not have – but while everyone seems to want badly for the program to work, communities it serves can be ambivalent.

The Internet has countless hellish accounts of privileged people importing to low-income schools and hating it, which represent extreme cases where students and schools were very clearly caught up in something damaging. Ultimately, I think that the exact opposite is the answer to work on education in America: the thing we need to do is recruit and train people more from within that community to teach there, and allow them to take crucial roles in training prospective teachers. Teaching should not be a “fall back” for suburban people who don’t know what to do with their degree, it should be a way for people from poor communities to demonstrate their own success and inspire students who identify with them.

As for middle class suburban people who do want to travel to low-income districts to “make a difference,” there needs to be an affirmative-action program for the faculty of every teacher education program in America, and programs need to focus not on connecting college students with diverse students, but on connecting them to diverse teachers who can model, from personal experience, better ways to approach “diversity.”

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1 Comment »

  1. One of your main points seems to be that some minority groups are sent to dention, special education, whatnot, more than white males.

    To judge this point in context, it would be beneficial to know to what degree the reason is a disparate treatment for the same behaviour, and to what degree it is rooted in a different behaviour.

    Note that in this instance it is uninteresting whether the explanation (for a hypothetical difference in behaviour) is genotype or fenotype—the interesting question is whether it is there.

    Comment by michaeleriksson — March 11, 2010 @ 10:21 am | Reply


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