When Equality Isn't Equal

The longer I teach, the more I realize that there is an ever-increasing disconnect between what school offers and what students actually need. I attribute this, at least in part, to the growing number of students who come from homes that are at or near the poverty line. In fact, for the first time ever, a majority of students in the southern states come from these types of homes. This change in the student clientele necessitates a shift in the daily operations of how a school operates and further requires that each school building have the flexibility to meet the individual needs of its students.

Most of the people in the government and in the private sector who make education policy decisions truly mean well. There are certainly a few bad apples in the bunch, like for-profit companies who set up charter schools and are more interested in taking the taxpayers’ money than providing a quality education. However, almost all of these education policy leaders come from very privileged lives and have no framework for understanding what it’s like to live at or near poverty. This is important when they’re making decisions for those of us who are.

The oligarchs and plutocrats who create, enforce, and reinforce the backbone of public education have a fundamental belief that the poor only need a basic education and a job to make something of themselves and rise above poverty. They preach the American Dream that everyone has an opportunity to succeed and that a quality education is the great equalizer. What they fail to understand is that poverty is all-encompassing and it limits opportunities. Students who live in poverty will not always have access to nice clothes to wear to job interviews, and they are often denied the opportunity to explore and pursue their passions in a public education system that, thanks to standardized testing, has itself become increasingly standardized in its course offerings.

It’s not fair to blame schools for this dilemma, because schools are merely the products of a series of education reforms initiated by well-meaning but misguided wealthy people. Schools do, however, make this problem worse by being obsessively concerned with reducing learning to something that can be easily quantified. Learning can not be easily boiled down to numbers and letters derived from standardized tests and report cards. As a teacher, I can not truthfully say that one student learned ten percent more than other student, because such a thing is literally impossible to measure. I can say that one student turned in ten percent more work, or demonstrated mastery of ten percent more of the standards, but measuring how much a person has actually learned is not possible. When educating students is all about numbers, and not about the individual learners, then the education system will continue struggling to find teachers who want to teach and students who want to learn.

To further my point that policymakers are clueless because they view children of poverty differently than their own children, consider that nearly all of them send their children to private school. President Obama’s daughters, Vice-President Biden’s grandchildren, President Clinton’s daughter, Vice-President Gore’s son, President Nixon’s daughter, and President Teddy Roosevelt’s son all attended Sidwell Friends School--a highly selective private school that doesn’t have to worry about the burden of standardized tests.

In addition to the basics, schools should focus on exposing students to a wide variety of interests and allowing them time to pursue their own passions while practicing creative thinking and problem-solving. Schools should open the very doors for students that living in poverty closes for them. We do not need to accept the narrow viewpoint of schools being about teaching to a standardized test so that they look good on a school report card. We need to educate the oblivious school reformers about what school should be and, more importantly, what school actually is. We need all those involved in creating education policy--from Secretary DeVos to our state representatives to our local county commissioners--to understand the harmful impact of closing achievement gaps at the expense of creativity.