Sunday, May 19, 2013

We Are Educators, Not Prognosticators

If you went by the numbers, you wouldn't bet on me.

I was a child from a home with abuse, divorce, and poverty. Neither of my parents had gone to college. By my eighth grade year, I was drinking alcohol as a coping mechanism for depression. I wore baggy jeans and black t-shirts and my long, stringy hair was in a constant ponytail. I was painfully shy and withdrawn and scared. If you had asked around about me, most of the people in town probably would have told you I was on drugs (I wasn't, but the red flags were there, so you'd probably have believed them). I was getting good grades, but I was getting good grades at a rural public school; it wasn't the kind of situation that would have done enough to outweigh all of the signs that I was headed to societally-defined "failure."

If someone had asked you to pick out the child who was going to go far in the educational system, you wouldn't have bet on me.
Cliche photo of a bad poker hand
And you would have been wrong.

Some time in my junior year I snapped out of it and realized that if I didn't do something different, I was going to be stuck in an endless loop. I stopped drinking, started smiling, and worked on my shyness. I ended up valedictorian of my high school class and went to undergrad with a full ride. By then, you might have started betting on me, but I was still going to a practical state school; there would be no Ivy League for me. Some people would still dismiss my chances.

I graduated with a high GPA and a double major. Still, people scoffed when I told them I was going to graduate school. They said that people like me don't get doctorates. They told me that to my face, so I can only imagine what some people were saying behind my back.

I got my Master's four years ago, and I've been working on my PhD while holding down a full-time job ever since. I don't want to sound too egotistical, but I know that I am nothing if not damned persistent, so--you're a little late to the game--but it might be time to start betting on me.

I tell you this not to brag about what I've done. I honestly don't think it's anything that remarkable. I think that it is the product of dedication, hard work, and having a network of people who believe in and support me.

I believe that there are a lot of people who can make it to where I am and beyond, and I know that there are plenty of them who don't get the chance.

I snapped out of a funk my junior year in high school, but it could have taken me longer. I could have stayed on that path until I was 20, or 30, or 40, or 60. It could have taken some time to realize that I was wasting the chance to do something that I loved and to generate my own happiness.

If it had, I wouldn't have gotten that full ride to school. Maybe my grades in high school would have slipped. Maybe I would have needed a little more help from the beginning.

It's precisely that kind of help that some people don't want to give. Educational pundit Michael Petrilli thinks that students who need developmental coursework shouldn't be eligible for Pell Grants. He said this in an article that enrages me a little more every time I read it:
Yes, there are obvious downsides. Most significant, many students wouldn’t be able to afford remedial education and thus would never go to college in the first place. Millions of potential Pell recipients — many of them minorities — might be discouraged from even entering the higher-education pipeline. Such an outcome seems unfair and cuts against the American tradition of open access, as well as second and third chances.
Then again, it’s not so certain that these individuals are better off trying college in the first place. Most don’t make it to graduation.

He's talking about  my students. I teach "remedial" (I prefer "developmental") English classes at a community college. He seems to have put my students into a neat, pre-packaged box of people who would be better off "in job-training programs that don’t require college-level work."

The point of a Pell Grant is not to reward people for figuring it all out early enough. We are educators, not prognosticators. We cannot tell the future, and we should not be pre-determining who looks successful enough for a chance and who doesn't.

Petrilli talks about my students as if they are cookie-cutter-crafted individuals who are interchangeable. Imagine the 40-year-old man who has suffered with undiagnosed dyslexia, the 50-year-old mother of four who dropped out of high school when she became pregnant and is going back to school, the 23-year-old who took a few years off to work to pay her family's bills and now needs to brush up on the skills she's forgotten since high school, and the 45-year-old who is returning to school after serving 10 years in prison for drug dealing who hadn't been in school since he was 13.

Petrilli looks at all of them and sees one thing: wasted money.

I look at all of them and see something else: myself.

It's true that none of our paths are identical, but that's the point. We all walk paths with our own difficulties, our own obstacles. Who am I to tell someone else that they missed the cutoff date for getting it straightened out? Who am I to say that if you don't have it all worked out by 16, then you might as well hang it up for good?

Petrilli's view is cruel and dangerous. It tells us that the only people worth investing in are the ones who look like sure bets. Here's the thing though, if you think about your own path long enough and hard enough, you'll probably be able to find a time when you didn't look like a sure bet, either. Maybe that time is right now. Petrilli wants to judge your future on your past.

I understand that education costs are soaring and that Pell Grants can't be sustained the way they were in the past. I understand that success rates for students who start in developmental classes need to be much, much higher. I understand the need for tough conversations about how money gets spent and students get taught.

What I don't understand is using this particularly problematic educational landscape as an excuse to make elitist calls for culling the "unsuccessful" from the playing field. Determining people's chances at success based on a snapshot of their lives rather than their own willingness to try does not make fewer problems, it makes more.

You can bet on that.

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Photo: benjamin.lim


  1. You've make a good point. The other thing that I hate about that is that it defines "success" as getting a piece of paper at the end. As though there is absolutely no benefit to improving a person's basic reading, writing, and mathematics skills if they don't end up with a damn degree.

  2. Absolutely! When someone is scared to read a book to their kids because they have no confidence in their literacy skills and leave a developmental class with the confidence to do it, that's progress. When someone lacked the tools to write effectively and leaves a developmental class able to write a cover letter for a job or a letter disputing problems with their insurance company, that's progress. To suggest that it isn't success or that there's no value to society as a whole in doing that is ridiculous to me.