"Law is only real if the rest of us will put our hands to it, put our hearts to it, stand behind it."
- Patrick Henry
Education is moving backwards by leaps and bounds and few people with the insights, expertise, and power to speak up are even raising their voices, let alone throwing their bodies in front of the massive tank that, in the end, will leave every child behind except the ones who look, act, and have parents who wield pocketbooks that resemble George Bush and his colleagues. Children are falling. Like leaves that the sun has forgotten, they are being trampled by the frenzy of feet frantically attempting to "do what we can" within the budget, within the current political climate, within our means, within the limited number of hours in a day… Without raising our voices too loudly! Without risking our jobs or stepping on the toes of those controlling this wayward machine.
We have no choice. Famous words of a bystander. I can think of a thousand clever answers to justify the neglect of the children in public schools but none are acceptable any more. As teachers and adults and working individuals and anyone taking the time to read this essay, we have a choice. We CAN ignore the problem, the devastation. We CAN go on with our lives. We CAN go home at 3:30 or 5:00, after a day’s work and relax in our homes. We CAN even walk away from the profession of education. If we choose. But our children and our students cannot. They do not possess the privilege to say no or to attend a different school. They truly have no choice but to wake up every morning and find their way to the school, the classroom, and the desk that was chosen for them. If that school, classroom, desk is failing our students, we are all complicit in their failure, especially those of us who know exactly was in going on – and how it can be changed.
For me, education has always been about change, activism, and social justice. In one of my first teaching credential classes, when asked why I wished to be a teacher, I replied with the most honest and sincere statement I could imagine, "because I want to change the world." I still do. I am not in teaching to "save" children. I do see myself as the catcher in the rye, saving my students from falling off the edge, guarding them from a cruel world that beckons them to give up with every step they take. My primary purpose is to teach, to share knowledge and help students find their own paths to knowledge, competence, and opportunity. However, in an unjust world this process inevitably necessitates teaching for change. What I teach and how I teach it can serve either to hold up the inequitable status quo extant in public education and American society in general, or it can pose questions that breaks down the system of domination of the powers that be.
At times in my teaching career I have been amazed and inspired by the willingness of my colleagues and the community I was surrounded by to stand up for the children in our schools. Now is not one of those times. Although powerful individuals who dedicate their lives to change continue to do amazing work at all levels, the overall current of education, as seen from my singular perspective, leans toward acquiescence and acceptance of the will of the political powers.
So that I may lend some gravity and, perhaps some authority, to my words I will speak of a situation that has been unfolding at the school in which I work: Thurgood Marshall. Last year, we failed to meet our API goal by one point (for those of you not involved in schools, API scores; which are based on statistics such as attendance rates, scores on standardized testing, and percentage of students graduating; are numbers used to rank schools in California against each other. A 10 is the highest possible API score). The failure to reach our targeted API score for multiple years has precipitated a partial state takeover of Thurgood Marshall. This intervention, along with drastic cuts in the education budget, as well as the top down model of authoritarian control over the classroom combine to create the dilemma we now face.
Among the many heavy-handed "recommendations" given by the state intervention process is the requirement that we implement nearly fifty purely skills-based, scripted intervention classes at school for all students whose reading or math competencies are below grade level. The intention of these classes is beneficent – to bring students whose academic skills lag behind those of their peers throughout the country up to grade level proficiency. In other words, to make them better reader and mathematicians. However, they ignore the individual, the human being and focus only on skills, as if students are machines that can be programmed with essential abilities without making learning meaningful.
The value and efficacy of such intervention classes is the subject of intense debate and there are valid reasons explaining both how the program might work for kids and how it might leave them even further behind than they already are. However, the reality that the implementation of the interventions courses brings to Thurgood Marshall is a tragedy waiting to happen. The creation of a schedule centered around nearly fifty skill level based intervention courses will result in de facto ability level tracking, the same tracking that was found to expand the gap in student achievement and, therefore was abandoned several years ago. Well, it is back with a new name and a new disguise, yet most teachers are stepping back and looking the other way as it creeps into Thurgood Marshall. It seems so simple to just say, “we have no choice.”
This system of tracking brought on by the forced implementation of the reading and math intervention courses is just one example of the myriad challenges that educators face every year due to the political push for quick fixes to the broken institutions in which we work. Right now, the obvious monster emerging from the closet of public education’s near future is the drastic budget cuts that have been riding these past few years of recession. Fewer teachers and counselors, larger class sizes, no money for field trips or professional development and we are left with barren results: cram as many teenage bodies as can fit into a square room; place a teacher in the room with them, equipped with a ten-page list of standards that she or he must "cover" in nine months; do this six times every day for an hour each time and wait for the results.
Yet we repeat our mantra, "we have to do it because the principal/district/state/federal government said so. We are doing all we can." It seems we have some lessons to learn from the school children of Soweto, in South Africa, who rose up against the apartheid government when told they could no longer learn their native language in school.
I understand the complexity and the delicacy of the political game that constantly plays out to assure the education system does not completely fall apart. Rising up is not always the most effective response to a change that you see as harmful or unjust. Still, there comes a time when we, as educators, as the only people (along with our students) who truly know the depth and severity of the tragedy of public school neglect today, must stand up and scream "no more." Only then will they listen. Only then will public education begin its assent out of the mire of fourth world status. Only then will our children, our students be given the respect and the quality education they deserve.
Trevor Gardner teaches history and language arts at Thurgood Marshall Academic High School in San Francisco. He participated in the Asia Institute's 2003 study tour to Korea and Japan and our 2004 workshop on human rights in Asia. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the UCLA Asia Institute.
Published: Wednesday, May 05, 2004
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