Education as Oppression

malcolm-x-oppressionI am teaching Urban Education right now. It is a foundation (200-level) course for the major. The course is divided into three sections: living in urban contexts, recurring themes in urban schools, teaching in urban schools. I have 24 students, most of whom are white, but some of whom are children of immigrants from Cuba, Guatemala, and Uruguay. Some were born in other countries but “raised white” (their phrasing). I have one African-American student and one Asian student. At least 6 of them are fluent in Spanish though I suspect around 3 more are as well. I have 8 males in this class—a lot for an education course.

Last Friday as we continued our analysis of recurring themes in urban schools, I opted to postpone our planned discussion of school closings in favor of an activity about equal funding in schools. I made this decision because the students have been entrenched in catch phrases like “urban renewal”, “cycle of poverty” and “school to prison pipeline”. It was raining and I didn’t think they were up for another depressing conversation about what happens to children when their school is closed (i.e. “student displacement”).

Instead, I gave an index card and a paper to each student. On the index card was a title or role. On the sheet of paper was a description of a scenario. In short, students were to assume roles of parent, teacher, principal, coach, student, local home owner, business owner, mayor, aspiring politician, college admissions counselor, or charter school developer at a Board of Education town hall meeting in Camden, NJ. The issue at hand: should nearby Cherry Hill cut their per pupil expenditure from $8,000 to $6,600, using the remaining money to raise Camden’s per pupil expenditure from $5,200 to $6,600. While in real life cities don’t give away their money, for the sake of the activity, students were asked to voice their opinion on if and why this should or should not happen. At stake for Cherry Hill: 15% fewer teachers, slightly larger class sizes, elimination of 2 foreign language programs and one sports team. To be gained by Camden: smaller class sizes, 10% more teachers, and a music program.

What I saw play out over the next 1.5 hours was wonderful from a pedagogical perspective. My students were engaged (no more sleepy expressions), impassioned (two students were standing and yelling at each other across the room about the merits and detriments of charter schools), creative (they came up with 3 alternatives and 6 amendments to the plan), and serious (almost every student wrote out a speech before it was their turn to speak). At first they were being silly, but after 10 minutes they were citing course readings and providing statistical evidence to support their position.

But underlying their comments was something they can’t escape (not without conscious effort): their privilege. Though they were trying to argue within the framework of their assigned character, their thinking was still comfortably housed in their experiences of private school, world travel, AP/IB coursework, and most of all, unintended selfishness.

The issue of equal school funding is over 50 years old yet we are no closer to a resolution. Our attention continues to be misplaced, our arguments misguided, our suggestions short-sighted. Conversations about school funding are about alleviating sufferings instead of mitigating advantages.

Media about education describes run-down, overcrowded schools with unqualified teachers and dejected administrators. Images of classrooms without enough desks, torn textbooks, blackboards with no chalk, windows covered with cardboard, and students huddled inside winter jackets struggling to stay awake pervade documentaries of urban schooling. The blame is hoisted upon apathetic parents, fraudulent politicians, and criminalized kids. They are why their schools fail. They are the ones dropping out of school, selling drugs, killing one another. They are the ones not studying, tearing up textbooks, and sleeping in class. They are the ones who don’t provide adequate housing or food for their children. They are the ones living off the system refusing to get a job and earn an honest day’s wages. Because of these actions—their­ actions—they are responsible for fixing their schools, motivating their children and getting into college. They are responsible for closing the achievement gap. They are responsible for education reform.

…Yet, how did they end up in this position? Who forced them into segregated housing because they were not allowed to live near you? Who withheld schooling so they were unqualified for jobs beyond hard labor? Who introduced crack into those segregated neighborhoods and then closed the doors so those wanting to escape couldn’t? Who withheld civic rights so they had no say in choosing those who would pass laws geared toward maintaining such oppression? Who enacts laws arbitrarily so that when they jay walk, fight in school, or engage in minor theft they are given harsher and longer prison sentences?

What of the benefits you receive in this system of inequities? As long as they are in their schools, in their neighborhoods, with their teachers, they are not affecting you. Out of sight, out of mind. Because see, if they manage to implement true reform, your schools, your neighborhoods, your position will be disrupted. If their classes get smaller, yours may get bigger. If their buildings are renovated, yours may not be. If they get more desks, textbooks and chalk, you may have to learn to work with less. Fixing broken windows and heating systems means you may have to wait another year for that new air conditioning unit. Placing qualified teachers in their schools means they won’t be in your school.

After all, this is about you, right?

Upper-middle and upper class parents occupy a clever position in this debate where they can be politically and morally supportive while being economically and geographically selfish. They can attend town halls and vote in favor of sweeping school reform for them…as long as we don’t have to change. These parents have a vested interested in maintain the system because in order for them to remain on top, there must be a bottom.

Just think. What images would grace the covers of those suburban school brochures if their solariums, music halls, computer classrooms, and lacrosse fields could also be found down the street and across the tracks? What data would be touted by school administrators and politicians if all the schools had 90% of their students at or above proficiency? If every high school was graduating 95% of its students and sending 85% to 4-year colleges/universities? What advantage would your students have if AP, IB, and Gifted programs were offered at every school? Why would Mr. Campbell be considered a “highly qualified” teacher if all teachers had Master degrees?

These things you hold dear as emblems of your superiority are argued to ‘not be enough’ to fix ‘those schools’. Really? Would all schools not benefit from small classes, qualified teachers, a myriad of course offerings and extra-curricular activities? Of course they would. Which is why that menu is not on the table.

What you offer is a la carte. Education reformers may choose one option, but not them all.

  • You may have better teachers; here are some TFA corps members OR you may have smaller classes, but no increase in budget to hire new teachers or raise salaries.
  • You may have a new curriculum; take Common Core Standards OR you may have support staff to help students functioning below grade level.
  • You may have a music and art program OR you may have instruments and art supplies.

These tidbits—these scraps—though placed on a silver platter are still leftovers you are willing to share. Instead of making suggestions that require true sacrifice and systemic change, you employ a sleight of hand and while everyone is arguing over if smaller classes would improve test scores, you are hiring 12 new school counselors for a ratio of 1:8.

When questioned about changing school funding mechanisms from property taxes to a shared pot of money (is she suggesting socialism?!?!), you guard your purse strings with platitudes of ‘money won’t fix everything’ and ‘look at how they mismanage the money they do have!’ or my personal favorite, ‘it’s not my fault they don’t have books or good teachers. Why should I have to pay for a school my child doesn’t attend?’

Class was about to end so I had my students vote on the major motions and the amendments. In the end, they voted (15-9) to pass the motion of lower funding in Cherry Hill and higher funding in Camden. However, they also passed an amendment wherein the programs cut from Cherry Hill and the allocation of funds at Camden were to be decided upon later.

I asked them: what did you all accomplish today?

They replied: nothing. Camden still has no money or resources and Cherry Hill is still better. We just postponed the discussion for a later time.

Then a student asked: so what happened in real life?

I responded: they built Charter schools.

Another student: so basically, in the end, no one gave up anything and Camden didn’t get anything?

Me: exactly.