Thinking with Marylinne Robinson about how America educates its children.
A couple of weeks ago, over a late lunch of wings and fries, a member of our church pointed out to me that the community colleges that offer vocational training – food service, auto mechanics, etc. – are mostly located in our city’s black and brown neighborhoods. My friend, an African American man, noticed this as he was looking for a school to take paralegal classes; he found that they were all located miles away from his family’s home on the South Side.
I thought about this while reading “An American Scholar Now”, an essay in Marilynne Robinson’s new book, What Are We Doing Here?She writes, “The argument against our way of educating is that it does not produce workers who are equipped to compete in the globalized economy, the economy of the future.” The essay is a reflection on the turn away from liberal arts education toward something more pragmatic and technical. She goes on,
This has to be as blunt a statement as could be made about the urgency, currently felt in some regions and credulously received and echoed everywhere, that we should put our young to this use, to promote competitive adequacy at a national level, to whose profit or benefit we are never told. There is not suggestion that the gifts they might bring to the world as individuals stimulated by broad access to knowledge have place or value in this future world, only that we should provide in place of education what would better be called training.
There’s so much in these few sentences. For one, Robinson points to how some vague national competition shapes how we imagine educating our children. I don’t know how many times I’ve sat in rooms with committed teachers and principals listening to a bureaucrat drone on about the fact that these days our kids aren’t just competing with children in another city but with students across the world. (For some reason China is usually emblematic in these pep talks, evoked with a sense of impending dread.) It’s not that education itself is valuable or that educators have a role in helping students discover “the gifts they might bring to the world.” No, the metaphor is almost always competitive- education as a means to an end where some win and others loose.
Robinson is thinking about higher education but, from my vantage point, the same assumptions have overtaken our public education system. And this is where my friend’s lunchtime observation is more acute. In the same way that, in Robinson’s terminology, training rather than education is more accessible in black and brown neighborhoods, so this pragmatic and competitive approach is more likely to be foisted upon lower income communities than their wealthier equivalents. While private schools and affluent suburban public schools tout small class sizes and low student-to-teacher ratios, our public schools are evaluated by whether they maximize efficiency through standardized testing and highly disciplined classrooms that can be managed with the bare minimum of adult instruction. Students who might otherwise be suspended are kept in school so that the precious federal dollars which are tied to attendance will keep flowing.
I suppose none of this is surprising. Elsewhere in her essay Robinson writes that in America, “The Citizen has become the Taxpayer.” She’s thinking about how we consider our responsibilities toward one another, but the images can extend to how we think about our children. Are they future citizens, capable of contributing their gifts to a world that wants and needs them, or simply tax payers into a system built to maximize efficiency and productivity? Are they people or resources? The answers should matter to all of us, but as my friend points out, they will carry far more significance to the children whose communities have generally been viewed as resources to exploit rather than people to cultivate.
The original mission of public schools … is this understanding that no matter where you come from, you will go into the doors of a school and every child will receive the same education.
And no, my daughter is not going to get an education that she would get if I paid $40,000 a year in private-school tuition, but that’s kind of the whole point of public schools.
And I say this — and it always feels weird when I say it as a parent, because a lot of other parents look at you a little like you’re maybe not as good of a parent — I don’t think she’s deserving of more than other kids. I just don’t. I think that we can’t say “This school is not good enough for my child” and then sustain that system. I think that that’s just morally wrong. If it’s not good enough for my child, then why are we putting any children in those schools?
When I started what I kind of call the segregation beat about five years ago … I think we had stopped talking about this as a problem. If you look at No Child Left Behind, which comes out of the Bush administration, that was all about giving up on integration in schools and just saying, “We’re going to make these poor black and Latino schools equal to white schools by testing and accountability.”
So no one was discussing integration anymore. I think it’s because … we never really wanted this. … It’s always had to be forced, and as soon as … our elected officials and our courts lost the will to force it, most white Americans were just fine with that. …
One of the things that I really try to do with my work is show how racial segregation and racial inequality was intentionally created with a ton of resources. From the federal government, to the state, to city governments, to private citizens, we put so much effort into creating this segregation and inequality, and we’re willing to put almost no effort in fixing it, and that’s the problem.
There will be forty-nine fewer public schools in Chicago when fall rolls around in a few months. These shuttered neighborhood schools were casualties in the ongoing war of education reform. Pensions, property taxes, charter schools, teachers unions, segregated neighborhoods, and city government all have their places in this complicated war. The children have a place too; more often than not, they are the victims.
As a Christian I watched the back and forth leading up to the school closings with one specific question in mind: How do individual Christians and local congregations respond to the education crisis in my city and around the country? If there is any doubt that public education is in crisis then Nicole Baker Fulgham’s book, Educating All God’s Children, should convince the most dubious skeptic. Early on she outlines the inequities most of us have become accustomed to: far greater percentages of Asian American and White students gradate high school in four years than do African American and Hispanic/Latino students; noticeably fewer African American forth-graders preform basic math skills compared with White students. Many of us have heard these sorts of statics often enough that we no longer really hear them; Educating All God’s Children makes sure we listen closely while beginning to imagine a different future.
It is the author’s great accomplishment that her book is accessible, informative, and – no small success given the topic – enjoyable to read. Take, for example, the second chapter that addresses the causes of the current education crisis. Fulgham identifies three major categories that impact student achievement: poverty; race, culture, and language; parents and families. Within these broad categories we find historical nuance, personal anecdotes (the author’s education within Detroit’s schools in the 70’s, teaching in Compton in the 90’s, and more recent advocacy work all figure helpfully throughout the book), and concise ways of understanding complex issues.
The Chicago Public School (CPS) strike has dominated our city’s attention this week and, if I read the news correctly, has become a story of national and even international interest. Like many news stories this one seems to have a dominant narrative. Because our church community includes many teachers I’ve become aware that this narrative doesn’t ring true with many of the central players. Daniel Michmerhuizen is a member of our church and a passionate educator. He agreed to answer a few questions about the strike. His perspective is an important one as we try to make sense of a very complicated situation.
How long have you been a CPS teacher? Help us imagine what your experience as a teacher in Chicago is like.
I’m entering my 6th year and third school within CPS. Before that, I taught for 7 years in Michigan. I have been blessed with tremendous students who want to learn and grow and be successful. I have been “cursed” with classrooms that have no climate control; mice; chipped paint; outdated and insufficient number of textbooks; outdated, insufficient or non-existent technology. How can I equip today’s kids for tomorrow’s jobs in these conditions. And yet, my kids display a yearning and longing to shine and succeed and learn.
This strike didn’t materialize out of nowhere. What are some of the issues – things the press hasn’t covered regularly – that have led to this point?
The biggest concerns are those previously mentioned teaching conditions. Not all schools have sufficient support staff. Kids don’t have recess or gym. Kids literally passed out from summer school from being in rooms with no air. There are classrooms where they have to wait 6 weeks for books. Additionally, there are issues with the longer school day (not that teachers are opposed the time, but what is it going to be used for? How is it to be structured?), the evaluation process, teacher recall, and compensation. However, those are not the “high priority” items for most teachers.
In a recent OP-ED column, Nicholas Kristof wrote, This is an issue of equality, opportunity and national conscience. It’s not just about education, but about poverty and justice — and while the Chicago teachers’ union claims to be striking on behalf of students, I don’t see it. Why do think the narrative has developed this way: that the union is mostly interested in self-preservation while the mayor and his allies are mostly interested in the students’ well being?
I could not agree and disagree more with Mr. Kristof . I agree with the entire first part…everything until the hyphen. And for that reason, the teachers strike about the other issues I mentioned. Unfortunately we can not legally strike that way because of the way recent legislation was written. Thus, that narrative that I have described does not get out there, it is buried in the news cycle, occasionally shared and spotlighted through personal teacher interviews (some of it was in a USA today article earlier this week). In order to be a legal strike, the official union (and thus news release) position simply has to be about salaries – which even Kristof admits – when that it not really the central issue. I find it very interesting that he says he would respect us more if it were just about the salaries. I don’t think the general public feels the same.
I’m curious: Are there points where you agree with the Emanuel administration’s education policy?
From everything that I have read and am familiar with, no. He closes local schools seemingly at will. There have been schools whose numbers are better than other schools in the area (including charter schools) and he will close them. He invites the citizenry to participate in fixing the schools, but then doesn’t listen to their recommendations that he supposedly empowered them to make. The Bronzeville CAC and its proposal after hours of work is a tragic example of this. He wants to shut down CPS schools and then turn the buildings over to charters. He has high ranking officials of multiple charter networks appointed to the Board of Education. How is this not a conflict of interest?
Now don’t get me wrong; I am not against charter schools and some are doing great things with their students. However, they take CPS money away from local schools but are not held to the same standards. How is that right? I have no problem going “head to head” with a charter school as long as they have to play by the same rules that I do, but they don’t! And quite often that is how they achieve the “dramatic and miraculous turnaround.” It is not the same kids under the same rules as before.
To me, his actions indicate that he wants to privatize education and, worse yet, turn them over to the corporate “reformers” who are not doing any better (and sometimes a worse) job than the traditional public schools. Longitudinal studies have proven this. Clearly you touched a hot button with me, and I could go much longer…
This gap – growing rapidly if I read things correctly – between the administration and union is troubling. Do you see any possibility for the gap to be bridged?
This is a complex issue that is hard to describe and discuss via email. I think it is “reckoning day”. I think you have a lot of sub-par principals and sub-par educators who slipped through the system for many years. Whether it was patronage, or lack of competent staff I think we had principals and teachers who obtained jobs that they may not have been completely qualified for, or least that they were not really that good at. And now, we have entered an age of accountability. Why is the graduation rate so low? Why are kids graduating who can’t read? Why can’t kids get into or succeed in college? And then the fingers start pointing in both directions. There are principals who are in place that weren’t even good teachers, let alone who have actual leadership abilities for schools. There are teachers who can’t even manage a classroom, let alone provide competent instruction. Whose fault? At the end of the day, it doesn’t really even matter, We (parents, teachers, administration) need to address it and look for solutions. The blame game has caused the divide and unless we move forward toward solutions, the gap will not be bridged.
That make sense. So, if were up to you to identify the next steps within this complex situation that would bring about meaningful change, what would you suggest?
I believe some of the following:
– If the mayor/city thinks that charter schools can do just as good of a job than make them play by the same rules for enrollment, sped population, student growth, retention, etc.
– Don’t invite the public to participate if you are just going to dismiss them, their time, their efforts, and their suggestions. That’s just disrespectful.
– If the mayor wants to empower principals to hire whom they want, then hold them accountable! They have four years to get rid of a teacher for any reason, no questions asked nor justification necessary.
Thanks for sharing this perspective Daniel. I’m hopeful it gives folks a larger view of what’s happening in this strike. One last question: Many of this blog’s readers are people of faith. How would ask then to pray?
This is probably the easiest question. Pray for the strike to be over ASAP. Pray for the city to heal. Pray for things to “go back to normal” in the sense of kids getting back to the rhythm of learning. Pray that we would continue to discuss and wrestle with the possible solutions to the current deficiencies resulting from the inequities of the current system. We need to focus even more intensely on them. We need top make sure all students have access to high quality public education with caring and competent teachers. Pray for the students as they struggle with more each day of just living than most of us could even imagine.