Thursday, April 5, 2012

We Don't Need No Education: Blaming Students for Educational Failures

I was watching The Biggest Loser a few weeks ago (don't ask me why I was watching The Biggest Loser; it was a mistake, and immediately following this scene they got back to the normal programming of prodding people about their moral failings until they cried for the nation, but I digress). All of the contestants were tethered a hoop in the middle of a ring and had to pull themselves to the edge.

The contestants soon realized that they couldn't all get first place. Some started working together. Now, not everyone went along with this plan, but it didn't take many collaborators to make it an easy win. Once someone won, s/he was eliminated from the group and the rest of them had to start all over until there were finally two people left going head-to-head. By this point, one of the people left in the final two was an angry mess because she felt that the rest of them had conspired against her. (You can watch it here. It starts around the 8:00 mark).

I think that this challenge serves as a pretty solid metaphor for the education fight. There are plenty of elements that go into education and determine whether it works or not: funding, teachers, facilities, administration, curriculum, parent involvement, etc. A lot of public schools are battling just like those Biggest Loser contestants. Each element is pulling to prove that it's not the problem, but until the groups realize that no one gets to win as long as everyone is focusing solely on their own little area of expertise, nothing gets accomplished. They have to work together and, yes, that might mean sometimes sacrificing your own "win" for the greater good.

I know, I know. Easier said than done.

But I can't help but say it. I am a product of public schools.  Sure, there were times when I wished there were some more resources (more foreign language courses in high school, for instance, or extracurriculars that better matched my interests), but I truly feel I received a good education. I had dedicated teachers that worked hard to challenge me (of course, I had some not-so-dedicated teachers who floated by doing the bare minimum, but they weren't the norm). I received excellent support from counselors about going to college. The building was completely functional, we had working computer labs, and I left there prepared to succeed.

But I've also been in public schools where this was not the case. I've volunteered in urban public schools where the bells rang at random intervals and someone would get on the intercom to announce a last minute schedule change. I've watched the students wander around the hallways unsure of which classroom to go to. I've seen classrooms designed to teach computer skills where there were only three or four computers for a classroom of twenty or more students, and whether or not they were working was a crapshoot. I gave a workshop and when the classroom around me devolved into chaos, the teacher's stood by idly and offered me no assistance. When I went to ask for some, they shrugged their shoulders and said I shouldn't expect much from these students.

I went home and cried that day, but probably not for the reasons those teachers would have thought. They probably would have thought that I was crying because I couldn't handle the pressure of teaching so many unruly children. They probably thought that I--little savior white girl from the University--had realized that my theories and good will couldn't hold up in a real classroom. In fact, I was crying because many of those same "unruly children" had been in a summer program where I worked (and I mean that literally, some of the same students). There, they had been given more rigid expectations, but they had also been given more respect. And I knew--absolutely knew--that I could expect more from them because I'd seen them give more. But that was a different context. Here, they were acting exactly as they were expected to act.

And thinking about that now, I realize that way too often, we place the students into the ring. We use them as a scapegoat for educational failings. I've heard so many people say that the schools would work if the students would try harder. The schools would work if the students weren't so disruptive. The schools would work if the students weren't absent all the time.

And this is where I get frustrated. Students are not part of that equation in the same way as teachers, facilities, funding, curriculum, etc. Sure, students have a responsibility for themselves and their actions. Students need to put effort into their education, but students do not get to be the scapegoat. We cannot say that schools are failing because of them. They are the reason the school exists. If the school fails them, it fails. Period.

I'm re-watching The Wire, and just finished Season 4, which focuses on the education system in Baltimore. This clip looks at some of the issues examined in the show and features the actors and producers discussing how they tried to portray a realistic view that straddles commentary and entertainment. 

The theme in all of these is that students will respond to the environment that they are thrust into. And yes, that environment is not limited to the school. Home environments and neighborhood environments count. But we have to stop placing the students into the fight for responsibility. We are responsible to them. We are more accountable than that. 

And it is with those experiences in mind that I watched this video:

Last Thursday, a group of about 50 high school seniors walked out of a Detroit school to demand the education they aren't getting. They complained of absent teachers, high administrative turnover, poorly organized curriculum, social promotion, and being unprepared for college. 

One of them, Davante Billups, had this to say
I want the kids under me, I want them to be able to have the education that we were supposed to have that we didn't get
This young man recognizes that  he's not getting the education he wants and needs, but he thinks to the future and wants to disrupt a cycle that shows few signs of slowing.

Do you know how the school responded to those students? They suspended them--because apparently students demanding an education are part of the problem, too. 


  1. Wow. Suspended? That's quite disturbing.
    Shame on those teachers that shrugged and said you shouldn't expect too much from these students. As a teacher myself, I am appauled at their words and lack of professionalism. Have they ever heard of self-fulfilling prophecy?

    Jennifer Gamm
    Elementary Teacher

    1. Exactly. Yes, students have to be responsible within the educational system, but if everyone in charge of that system has already decided they're going to fail, what else can they do but fail?

  2. I just read this and thought of your post:

    I also just participated in a focus group at my child's elementary school this week. We were "randomly chosen" (haha)to speak to a 3rd party facilitator about our experience at the school. It was incredibly interesting to hear opinions from other parents, but ultimately only confirmed the frustrations that I feel with the school/education system are shared by so many. It seems an impossible hurdle to fix this system, and I emphatically feel that those in power lack courage to make things right.
    Good for these children who have the courage to stand up for themselves.

    1. Wow! I hadn't seen that story, but that is really fascinating . . . and sad. The thing that strikes me about it (as an English teacher myself) is how against my teaching philosophy and personal ethics it is to punish someone for expressing ideas. I can't imagine what a student would have to write for me to try to get him/her suspended (I guess direct threats against someone else?). Critically analyzing what the teacher says and does should be something EVERY student does. And it sounds like the essay demonstrated a clear understanding of the major themes in Douglass' work.

  3. Ack. I work in one of "those" schools where lack of attendance is a much-lamented problem. But it's a problem we're working (and making progress) toward fixing because we've realized and admitted: The number of students who are solely responsible for their own chronic attendance issues is so small as to be negligible. I'm not saying that we don't have students who make independent decisions to ditch, say, last period once in a while -- But if they're regularly missing class, there's a factor outside the student. It may be a parent needing them for something outside of school and/or lacking transportation; a transportation system ill equipped to safely meet student needs; students with the genuine and sustained belief that Teacher X does not like or care about them (I won't say that students are always 100% accurate in this, but it is always based on something real); etc.

    Ultimately, I think it comes down to this: Human beings -- teenagers included -- fundamentally want to learn. They want to be respected for where they are with their thoughts and ideas, but they also want to be challenged -- in ways they expect will be useful and relevant to their lives. It's when we aren't providing that -- as teachers, as educational institutions, whatever -- that students will meet whatever bar we do set for them.

    1. I completely agree, and I've been guilty myself of oversimplifying the narratives of my students' lives. It was a hard habit to break myself of always applying my own paradigm onto their decisions. Sure, it's easy for me to say that school should be their first priority, but what about when no one else is there to watch their little brothers and sisters? And transportation--yes! I caught myself getting so frustrated at students who were arriving late to a summer program until I realized that the bus was consistently off schedule.

      And, like you said, there are occasionally students who are just blowing off attendance or not interested in school, but--in my experience--they are the exception, not the rule.