The Challenge for American Education and Educators: Understanding race and class

12 Feb

imagesOkay boys and girls I have plunged back into the arena of education full force. I am serving as the director of field placement for a private university for a few months. I am not sure they realize it is for a few months, they seem to want me to learn a lot about new regulations, lead committees a lot and teach some, and they have given me a spiffy office with my name on the door, but I am retired, at least I think so. But I digress.

I went to a meeting of educators last week in Columbus, all of us are involved in pre-service teacher education. I was the only raisin in the rice pudding of the thirty odd people there. Some of them were truly odd by the way, but most of them were nice. Because I was the only black person there, and new besides, the group acted rather like a herd of gazelles that had just noticed the presence of a cheetah on the horizon. They were not exactly alarmed, but they were not exactly comfortable either. Lots of glances out of the sides of folks’ eyes and smiles and nods when I turned and looked at them. I imagine they were not sure who or what I was. We did not do introductions–note to leadership, new people need to know who the heck people are and where they are from, those table tents are only visible from certain perspectives. But, I got the distinct impression this was a closed group, a clique if you will,  lots of inside jokes and comments about absent people that one would not know if one had not been a member of the club.

Several white women who came in ( there were only two white men amongst the group which might have some impact on the flagging academic fortunes of males in America) glanced at the seats next to me, which were staying vacant. Finally one woman came in , put her stuff down and then looked at me and picked up her things and came to sit next to me. Another brave soul did the same exact thing. All i could wonder was if these people were leading teacher preparation and they were so uncomfortable with a black woman in the room what kind of preparation could they possible be giving their pre-service teachers in the area of race and understanding and cross cultural experiences?

The stated purpose of the meeting  was to go over updates to edTPA the system devised by the clever folks at Stanford to make it harder for people to get a license to teach. Just what we need with an aging teaching population and changes to retirement systems that will encourage veteran teachers to hang up their chalk. That will be the topic of another blog, trust me. Anyway, evidently there were no updates for TPA so it kind of turned into a general gripe session about fees, the way educators and education are disrespected and treated and what they viewed as exclusionary practices against private colleges and universities.

It was that last subject that made me break the promise to myself to keep my mouth shut and just listen. I had sat quietly trying to get a feel for the group and their issues and learn something more about teacher preparation, which I have been away from for about ten years. I was struck first by the evident lack of political savvy and information most of them seemed to have. They did not know why these changes and regulations were happening, they reminded me of that film years ago where the coke bottle falls out of the sky on the aborigine and he has no idea what it is. They seemed equally clueless to what is happening in this country regarding education, both from the nutty right that despises book learning and the liberal left that is sure that the only reason all kids are not Rhodes Scholars is because we have not found the magic bullet to unlock their brilliance.

The assembled group began to complain about the new system called Dual Enrollment which allows high school students to take college courses. It is well funded which evidently, unlike other similar previous programs, allows the colleges involved to give a rebate ( read kick-back) to the school districts that send the kids for the classes. The issue of concern was that private colleges may not be qualified to participate. Oh the horror! That finally made me break my silence. Most educational reform, initiatives, programs and other experiments, pilot programs and voodoo pedagogy are focused on increasing academic performance and opportunities for certain groups. Most of us know that the vast majority of rich white kids are doing okay in school ( heck probably the vast majority of rich black kids are too, but we won’t go there). Certainly the Asian kids of most backgrounds are doing well. So, who is struggling? That would be almost all poor kids of any color and a depressing percentage of kids of color of any stripe. I pointed out to them that looking at ways to ameliorate ( I love that word, it just means fix, but sounds much better) the academic problems of poor and/or minority kids would not lead one to look towards a private college.  I asked them to look around the room and take note of who is at the table, e.g. nobody poor and nobody of color but me.

During their earlier discussion of standards and programs and practices I noticed neither race nor class had been mentioned when they talked about education. But race and class are important factors in education in America. The fact that most teachers are white women from the middle class who would not recognize the difference between poverty based behavior and culturally based behavior is one of the primary reasons for low performance by students of color, especially in urban settings. We are asking people raised in the Arctic Circle to go teach survival skills to people in the rain forest. I am sure everyone should know how to skin a moose, and since Sarah Palin can do it how hard could it be to learn, but living in the jungle it would not be a particularly good skill to concentrate on.

The only way you can be an effective teacher is to either have quite a bit of commonality with your students or be willing to learn enough about them to understand them. In America we have had a centuries long system that says there is nothing that people of color can teach white people. We have actually taught white people more than they have taught us, but that is not ever going to be acknowledged. The fact that virtually all slang and much of pop culture originates with people of color is ignored, along with more significant contributions. Lacking this information many a  white teacher thinks her job is to make her students of color as much like white people as possible. This applies to language, mores, ideas, heroes, culture and beliefs. When the student has trouble reconciling home and school it is home he is encouraged to discount.

That makes school an alien place for a lot of kids who do not share the race, culture and/or economic status of their teachers. And please, please do not tell me how badly paid teachers are, they are not poorly paid enough to understand the stress of kids who do not have any food unless they get free lunch and those who have to fervently hope their family has not been evicted from yet another apartment while they are at school. They are badly paid compared to other professions and should all get raises, but they are not in any danger of starvation. The average teacher salary in Ohio in 2011 was $57,000. And I know that teachers work long hours ( especially elementary and English teachers) but they still work 183-186 days a year folks. That averages out to over $300 a day. Are they worth more than that? Many of them yes, absolutely, but the bottom line is that many of them, due to their lack of understanding or knowledge of other cultures or economic groups are not exactly doing the very best job.

The reason is simple, the cure is difficult. White people are not raised or trained to think about race and culture. Many of them think they should be “color blind.” So  they institute policies, pedagogies and procedures that would work for people like them and blame the students who do not respond for their lack of academic achievement. A discussion of pedagogy without a discussion of race and class is an exercise in futility.

So I will finish out my months laboring in the fields of academe and continue to hold up my flag of caution about trying to do things that depend on one size fits all and yet only really fits some and go home and play in my garden soil and comfort myself with the fact that I told them……even if they would not listen.

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Posted by on February 12, 2013 in Uncategorized


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