Sunday, March 7, 2010

A Failure of Imagination

We finally seem to have discovered, as a society, that generational dysfunction and poverty come from social breakdown and the raising of children therein.  But instead of attempting to compensate for these social inequities by allocating resources targeted towards areas in which we can have a real impact on kids' lives, we're doing little other than blaming teachers when the normative education model that seems to work OK in middle class neighborhoods doesn't seem to work in ghettos.  Instead, we should be reflecting on our collective inability to make the radical changes required to fundamentally confront this problem.

Many seem quick to voice an opinion on what is wrong with education today.  But few seem cognizant of what we are asking teachers in poor neighborhoods to do, and how they are being blamed when they are failing to do it.  The task is to take kids from incredibly dysfunctional neighborhoods, from households geographically concentrated by poverty, and to turn them out on par with kids from functional households geographically concentrated by higher-income... with less resources. 

The fact that some amazing teachers are able to get amazing results, or that some charters who ask their hand-picked, best-in-class teachers to make enormous sacrifices does not mean this is a way to reform education of poor children in America.  It doesn't follow from an economic, sociological, or moral standpoint.
Those who argue all that is needed is to replicate these rare results are fooling themselves if they think this is anything near possible. 

As we sit here dinking around, hundreds of thousands of kids are growing up without quality parenting, in shitty neighborhoods, spending their tedious days in schools that are over-crowded, underfunded factories staffed by over-worked teachers just trying to keep the kids afloat until they can hopefully all trickle out senior year into low-wage jobs, drug abuse, pregnancy, and the prison system.  These are the kids left behind, who make the charter schools look good when they either don't get picked or get kicked out for bad behavior. 

The fact is that today there are thousands of parents living in ghettos who, by the good fortune of knowing proper parenting strategies and possessing the minimum resources required to deliver a child into the educational system who is capable of engaging in a high level of successful academic behavior, are forced to send their children to schools filled with severely at-risk and disadvantaged youth.  The learning environment is then forced down to the the lowest common-denominator, joyless trudgery through remediational content delivery formats.  If they are lucky, they might get into the rare gate class, which is itself a further segregation within the ghetto.

For these parents, it is argued that charters are at least an emergency way "out".  This was the same case made for vouchers.  While I sympathize with this argument, the fact that they possess the parenting fortitude their ghetto-peers do not is for me no greater emergency than that of the "left behind".  There is certainly no moral difference in privileging one child over another. 

We live in an unequal society and children will not be raised in equal environments.  Although public education is a socialist enterprise - designed to allow for a minimum level of social equity among future citizens - it is not currently equipped to take on the monumental task of truly distributing human capital, at least in so far as effective performance, equally among the young.  While I'm all for the project, and find it morally logical, I cannot accept playing favorites in a half-hearted endeavor.  While a great benefit to the few, this in effect furthers the disparity between what is already a disadvantaged class.

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