Over the course of the last week, eight of my students served detention with me, mostly for being a pain in the neck. (Given that this is the second week of school, the phrase “having my work cut out for me” comes to mind.)
Because I am not a believer in children sitting idle, and I never like to confuse academics with punishment, these were “cleaning” detentions. As often happens, I did not actually have 30 minutes of chores for all of them to do and duly farmed them out to my colleagues for such rewarding work as cleaning desks, vacuuming, and washing white boards.
Afterwards, a colleague and I were commenting on how respectfully and quietly they were able to work at menial tasks, despite their disruptiveness in class. Without an audience, we agreed, these kids were just fine.
As I often do at these times, I also said that part of the problem is that these young men (and they were all young men that week) are “doers.” They want to be doing things. They don’t want to be sitting and listening and definitely not sitting and thinking. They don’t even want to be walking around and thinking. They want to be doing. And they want to be doing things that have value and meaning for them–probably things like fixing cars or building cabinets or putting together the parts of an airplane. Not academics
My heart breaks a little to think of the kind of torture I am inflicting on them everyday, as I attempt to persuade them to learn something they do not really want to learn. While ninth grade is too soon to make a decision that would affect the course of the rest of their lives, the fact is that they do not have a choice about what they learn and they will not have a choice for at least two years.
High schools now are increasingly oriented towards a “college-for-everyone” approach, and the high school graduation requirements where I teach are in line with college admission requirements for the California State University system. The argument is usually that this is more equitable–and given than students who are not “college-ready” upon graduation are disproportionaly poor and non-white and non-Asian, there is something to be said for this.
However, I do not believe a “college-for-everyone” approach really is equitable. It causes some students an undue amount of misery and even despair about themselves and their futures. Others turn away from education altogether, so that they are neither “college-ready” nor “work ready,” because they simply stop going to school to learn anything.
While I believe all of my students can learn college-preparatory material, not all of them want to or find in any meaning in attempting to do so. It makes them feel fidgety and stupid. So why do we do it?
In a word, the economy. Our economy has shifted away from work that requires little formal education to work that requires tremendous formal education. Even skilled labor–skills that can be learned on the job or in trade schools–is reported to require more reading and writing, more communication, and more mathematics. I need my students to be educated, whether they want to be educated or not, and so does the rest of the nation.
However, we seem unable to acknowledge this as the real purpose of education in America, leading to a number of contradictions in policy–especially in terms of funding. Does school primarily give individuals a chance to advance themselves? Or does it mainly create workers who can figure out how to stop climate change and produce the next generation of electronic device-toys? We seem to be unable to decide or to consistently hold to one point of view.
As an example of this, children living in poverty (20% in 2009 according to Kids Count) are more likely to be malnourished, fall sick more often and have less access to preventive and other kinds of health care, and are more often witnesses to or victims of violent crimes. They are also more likely to have new teachers (poor districts have higher turnover), and new teachers are known to be less effective than experienced teachers–even well-prepared, creative, and talented new teachers. And that is not even touching on environmental and industrial hazards that disproportionately affect poor neighborhoods.
All of these factors place poor children at risk in school. More illness means more missed school days. Malnourishment can lead to a poor ability to concentrate, remember, or control impulses, as does psychological trauma. Trauma can additionally cause greater emotional reactivity or inappropriate and disproportionate reactions to interpersonal conflicts–leading to defiance, fighting, and other infractions that then lead to suspensions and more missed school.
If we understood that an educated population is necessary for success as a society, we would address these factors that interfere with learning and school success systematically–providing school-based medical treatment, creative responses to missed school days, psychological counseling, and additional incentives for talented teachers to stay. School districts in poor areas would receive much greater funding than those in middle-class areas to pay for the additional services.
Instead, they receive approximately the same or less funding than other districts. In fact, if you remove welfare-oriented services (such as free and reduced lunch programs) from funding calculations, school districts in poor areas receive several thousand less per pupil than average (Ramirez, 2012). Not only is there no money for extra services like counseling, there is less money to maintain school buildings, pay teachers, and buy books.
If education is there to benefit the individual, and is an opportunity and a privilege, then that approach makes sense. Just like middle-class children, poor children need to work hard to succeed regardless of the additional challenges they may face to earn their educations. Removing some of the barriers to their success by providing additional services is coddling and unfair. People need to pull themselves up by the bootstraps, just as our grandparents and great-grandparents did.
The economy, on the other hand, is not concerned with the character of its workers. It does not care whether you got where you are because you worked harder than everyone else, or if you had an easy ride of it. On the contrary, it needs nearly everyone to be at the top of the boot, as the percentage of jobs in unskilled labor fields shrinks and jobs expand in skilled and professional fields.
We need to make up our minds.
National Kids Count Program. (2012). Children in Poverty. Retrieved from: http://datacenter.kidscount.org/data/acrossstates/Rankings.aspx?loct=6&by=a&order=a&ind=43&dtm=322&tf=38&gclid=CMWmvNGXkrICFUheTAodZkcA1Q
Ramirez, R. (2012, August 29). Federal Loophole Enables Lower Lower Spending on Students of Color, Study Says. National Journal. Retrieved from: http://www.nationaljournal.com/thenextamerica/education/federal-loophole-enables-lower-spending-on-students-of-color-study-says-20120829