Tuesday, April 06, 2010

In the Eye of the Beholder

The public education system in this country is broken. It is not the fault of the teachers (although mass firings would lead you to believe it is), it is not the fault of the students, it is not the fault of the parents and it is not the fault of the government. The fault lies in the system itself. In a pre Brown V. Board of Education world, the public school system was comprised of two parts, one for white students and one (that was called "equal") for blacks. The schools for the black children were woefully under resourced (and in many cases overcrowded) and had no chance (for the most part) to compete for the best available teaching talent. Flash forward to today, 55 years after the landmark Supreme Court case that outlawed the policy of "separate but equal" and we have a public school system that in many ways mirrors the landscape as it stood in the pre Brown days.

The policy of "separate but equal" was kept in place, in part, to not only keep children of different skin colors apart, but in order to perpetuate a permanent underclass in this country. The policy proved incredibly successful in that respect. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, life for those on the wrong side of the "separate" doctrine remained amazingly stagnant. The tidal wave of prosperity that swept the entire country following the end of WWII somehow managed to elude those at the very bottom of the socio-economic chain. In the south, especially, those born with the wrong skin pigmentation could not realistically hope that their lives would be any better than those of their parents. And the law of land saw to it that their opportunities for advancement were very limited indeed.
The changes that were brought about due to Brown and the subsequent Civil Rights acts and voting rights act of the following decade led to a new outlook. The 60's ushered in a new age of enlightenment. LBJ dreamed of a "Great Society" and of the end of discrimination and poverty and for a time, the country, caught up in the age of Aquarius, went along for the ride. Schools were desegregated; For the first time in the history of the nation a thriving black/minority middle class emerged; affirmative action helped to limit the effects of discriminatory hiring practices; And education, which for over a century had provided a barrier to any chance of upward mobility, gave those with less, a chance for more.
Then came the 80's and the attacks on the hopes and goals of the "Great Society" came fast and furious. Our nation became much less concerned with US and much more concerned with ME. White flight to the suburbs became a rushing torrent and our inner cities were left to be, more and more, the last refuge for those with no other choice. One of the major consequences of the flight to the suburbs was the loss of the tax base that helped to support the public school system. Property values dropped and the stream of revenue that helped to support the education of our children began to dry up. With the loss in revenue came a loss in the quality of education that could be provided to those children who happen to be unfortunate enough to be born in a underfunded district..
Funding for public schools comes from a combination of federal, state and local government money. Federal and State money are usually handed out equally based on school populations, but local money is most often kept within the locality. So the upshot of that policy is that, here in NY there are schools that have computer labs that provide every student with a computer, and there are those that require that multiple students to share one. There are schools that have average class sizes of 20 and those that have average class sizes of 40. There are schools that have modern facilities and textbooks, and there are schools that have to convert closets to classroom spaces because they have no more room to fit their expanding population. I know I've taken a long time to get to my point, but here it is: The simple question that should be posed is why, do we as a country, value some children more than others?
The beginning of one the most quoted and repeated lines in all of history says, "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal". Let's look past the obvious contradictions of the statement at the time it was written, to the actual meaning of those words. We, as Americans believe as part of our DNA, that everyone in this country should have an equal opportunity to succeed. We believe that we are a meritocracy despite all the evidence to the contrary. Life may not actually work this way, but we, as a people, are not ready to admit that a kind of social Darwinism should reign supreme. Yet as we close our eyes to the absolute inequity of our public school system, that is exactly what we are doing.
"Let's fire all the teachers!", some say. "It's all the parents' fault", still others will claim. Yet as we point fingers at each other, another generation of our children is being lost. Wait, let me rephrase that, another generation of lost souls is being created. As it was before Brown and the Civil Rights Acts, we, as a country are in back in the business of perpetuating a permanent underclass. People can go to the movies and watch a Sandra Bullock movie, where one black kid is "saved" and becomes a success and believe that all is right with the world. Unfortunately, that story is not repeated very often. Most of us do not have an extraordinary skill. Most of us would not stand out on a field or court. Most of us would not stand out against the best or brightest in any of the endeavors that we have chosen to undertake. That has not, however, precluded some of us from acquiring some level of achievement or satisfaction in our lives.
I took my education for granted, as I'm sure most of us did. The children who now attend public schools in well funded districts probably take their education for granted as well. They have what they need to satisfy any intellectual curiosity that may be sparked during their typical day. Children who come up on the short end of the birth lottery most typically would not have the resources to satisfy that curiosity. When the intellectual spark is not nurtured into a fire, it eventually disappears. We, as a country, are currently in the business of choosing who gets that opportunity and who does not. And what happens to those kids whose curiosity isn't nurtured? You already know the answer. We all do.

3 comments:

tnlib said...

Don't the teachers, parents, school boards and governments (funding and distribution) all together make up the system? Aren't "they" responsible for seeing that "all" students get a first rate education?

I read a fantastic book about 1000 years ago written by a fellow assigned to a "Bean School" in NYC.
I can't remember the authors name or the title. I just remember that it was very powerful

The school is made up of burned out teachers and a rigid but weak administration. Students are young (4th grade) but are already hardened by their environment. Few text books and supplies and so on.

He tries to overcome all these obstacles by taking his students on field trips to museums and putting out a student paper. He is met with nothing but resistence and eventually he is ordered to cease all such activities. In the end he asked for and received a transfer.

It was heartbreaking. Good post.

Beach Bum said...

The simple question that should be posed is why, do we as a country, value some children more than others?

Its worse than that, I simply cannot recall how many times I have heard old farts complain about why they have to pay taxes to support schools when they have no children. As if doing their part to assure that we have an educated population was just too much of a burden.

But still that's not the most selfish and stupid comment I have heard about public schools. I have even heard old farts complain that they shouldn't have to pay taxes to support schools now that their children are grown.

Such people always produce an overabundance of warm fuzzies for me, the demonic kind.

TomCat said...

Mycue, what an excellent post, well thought out, clearly presented, and wise.

I had not thought of this before, but it all federal, state, and local funding were combined in a national fund and apportioned to schools, based on enrollment, it would go a long way to address the inequities.

I have long held the view that all education, K-post doc, should be free, based only on the students' ability to do the work. Students could pay for their education with community service after graduation, the higher the degree, the longer the term.

Combining these ideas would make us the meritocracy we claim to be.