My father used to tell me that education is all about building blocks. When I was younger he would wax eloquent about building a “strong foundation” so as not to limit my options later on. Thankfully his message eventually sank in—at least in so far as I, often begrudgingly, did my homework and tried to do my best. I learned to add, and then multiply, then to perform algebra, and finally to understand theoretical calculus. In retrospect I understand that I really was building an educational tower. Any failure to fully grasp addition or algebra would have left me unequipped to perform as a student of mathematics later down the road. It’s like that game Jenga, wherein the whole tower relies completely on a few blocks for support. Today I was reminded, in the most tangible sense possible, that not everyone had the pleasure of being raised by my father, not everyone has the Jenga tower I have been blessed with.
In his book More Than Just Race, sociologist William Julius Wilson breaks down a number of issues relevant to urban poverty. In his discussion on the vicious cycle of educational underachievement Wilson uses the analogy of the NFL draft. Imagine if you will, he says, that when a team wins the Super Bowl they then get first (rather than last) pick in the subsequent draft. This would most certainly, and in short order, product teams of vastly inequitable talent distribution with a small percentage of victorious franchises dominating the game with all the talent, many in the middle, and the rest with the leftovers, continually failing, at the bottom of the heap with no hope of ever coming out on top. This seems ridiculous, does it not? This is why in the NFL teams who win the Super Bowl don’t get first draft pick. The frustrating part of this is, although the powers that be in the NFL seem to understand this equalization dynamic, the people who designed our educational institutions do not.
Mr. Heinz, a math teacher at Hyde Park Academy on the south side of Chicago, reminded me of Wilson’s NFL/education dilemma yesterday. He explained how in Chicagoland special schools admit only the highest performing students, a secondary bracket takes the ones who barely missed the first, and magnets and charters pick up a majority of the rest. This leaves neighborhood schools like Hyde Park Academy somewhere like “the lurch.” They constantly get the lowest performing students, students who, by the time they enter high school, want to be just about anywhere other than school. Moreover, they are essentially punished – read: reorganized –every few years in an attempt and make the school perform “up to par.” It is a vicious cycle. It is exactly this type of outmoded, illogical education policy that created the de facto segregation and generational poverty which is so prevalent in America’s urban core.
I’ve been in Chicago just over 48 hours now and have been struck (aside from by my first blizzard experience not occurring in a Dairy Queen) by issues concerning urban education. As someone who has lived the majority of their life about as far right politically as one can get, the seemingly obvious solutions scare me in their ostensible liberalism. Tonight, over dinner, I had a conversation which laid a capstone for my first few days—at least in an ideological sense. Whilst consuming our crunchy salads and delicious chili-pasta a few fellow Furman students and I came to the conclusion that education is pretty screwed up. (People wiser than me have known this for some time now, but it was something of a breakthrough on my end.) We spent quite a bit of time talking about effective after school opportunities for engagement, and—returning to the Jenga example—the effect that strong homes, families and other externalities have on early childhood development. But in the end we came to something of an interesting conclusion. We felt like it all came down to empathy.
Obviously education fails quite a few students; I would argue most students (I might be seen by many as “successful” on the educational frontier but I don’t crack much of that up to the structure of my education.) If we want to truly change the way that education happens on an individual level we have to think from an empathetic vantage point. Wilson, and for that matter, Mr. Heinz, would have us see poverty as a by-product of some intersection of structural and cultural factors. While these are valid and true aspects of the problem, it really boils down to ineffective education at the institutional level. This means that reorganization and reallocation will continue be insufficient as a means of tackling this, most curious, of dilemmas.
So what? Insofar as I can see (bearing in mind I have no PhD) the solution is linear and is two-fold. 1) In the short term American education—specifically urban education –has to provide superior surrogate role models for its students, enhance offerings rather than removing programs, and focus on foundations. 2) in the long term, the entire system needs to be dissolved and reestablished; yes this is drastic, but these are people’s lives that we as a society are failing by our inaction. This rejuvenation must include the destruction of standardized learning with focus shifting rather to exploratory, modular classrooms rather than the iron rule of the curriculum.
Fixing education is not going to come quickly, simply, or painlessly. It’s one of the many problems that cannot be solved by throwing cash in its direction. It would take multiple books to substantiate the conclusions that I have outlined above and come to over the past 48 hours. Therefore, please don’t read this as my arrogant ravings from the ivory tower, but rather find above the delineation of a change in heart for me.