On Monday, on the sidewalks I used to walk as an elementary schooler with a bob haircut and sparkly laced sneakers, I witnessed the Union Debate I’ve been contemplating over the past few weeks play out in my own home town. My Mom and I had heard from a close friend who is a teacher at one of our local elementary schools that the opening of a new auditorium and cafeteria in my old Cumberland Elementary stomping grounds might be used as an opportunity for Whitefish Bay teachers to protest the union and collective bargaining regulations currently being made by Governor Walker. In light of the legislation being passed that limits collective bargaining rights, these teachers sought to create a separate contract with the Whitefish Bay School Board to maintain union-style contracts for another two years (an article written for the local Whitefish Bay Patch news source outlines this contract and the protest further.) Buttoning up our sweaters against Wisconsin wet spring weather, we headed over to the idyllic Cumberland community gathering.
After watching a classic rendition of “Let’s Go Band!”(as seen in the first pictures above) enthusiastically performed by the fifth grade Band, and after shaking hands with several of my parents’ friends, we headed out to the street corner where the real action was beginning. With smiles strung across their faces and signs that lettered the proud message “Your Kids Are Our Kids,” these protesters were not the angry faced screamers in Madison that had made so many headlines and front page photographs. These men and women were the people who taught me about the intricacies of photosynthesis, sentence structure, the periodic table, and the value of a great thesis statement. They recognized me, called my name, and waved. My AP Bio teacher reminded me to e-mail her about my life. Snapping photo after photo, many of the protesters stopped to pose. They looked so happy despite their cause. They loved their jobs. I still don’t know all of the complexities of what they are “fighting” for, but in that moment my full support was with them. These teachers–most of them highly experienced and longtime members of the district–played a huge role in the person I would eventually become. They spent hours, days, weeks, and months of preparing me. Standing and watching them march, I didn’t question what they were asking for… I just wanted them to have it.
However, now that I’m removed from that street corner and the smiles of men and women I grew to love, I have become more analytical. I have begun to sort again through the pros and cons of teacher unionization and tenure rights, and have found added nuance after viewing the education based documentary “Waiting for Superman” and attending a Whitefish Bay parent book study called “Courageous Conversations”–an effort to raise awareness about the racial achievement gap (and general racial divide) in Whitefish Bay schools and do something about it.
“Waiting for Superman,” though admittedly biased, is a documentary that evaluates our broken education system and offers solutions. Ironically, these implied solutions are close to what Walker is currently doing with Wisconsin education. When the film was first released, it was a hit. Audiences were abuzz with talk of “dropout factories” and charter school “lotteries.”
This film, directed by Davis Guggenheim, the man made famous for his direction of “An Inconvenient Truth,” follows the lives of 5 children trying to beat the depressing odds of “succeeding” in the public education system. Charter schools are painted as saviors in a failing system, and statistics about the shockingly low math and reading proficiencies across the country, dwindling number of students who are actually prepared for college upon high school graduation, heightened number of high school drop outs, and the number of “bad” teachers that are nearly impossible to fire, are shared.
To list a few of these statistics and facts that stood out:
- Most schools in the U.S. score between 20-35% in grade level proficiency. The worst scores are in Washington D.C.–our nation’s capital.
- 68% of the prison inmates in Pennsylvania are high school drop outs. For the same price of housing these inmates, we could have put them through private school and had 24,000 dollars left over to fund their college education.
- If we eliminated just the bottom 6-10% of our under-qualified teachers and replaced them with average teachers, we would reach the education level of countries like Finland.
- At the end of the school year every June, and sometimes partway through, the Milwaukee school district participates in what they have jokingly named “the lemon dance.” In this ritual, the worst teachers in each school (the “lemons”) are shuffled between schools. One public school will trade their failing teachers for another school’s under-performing ones, and in the end all will hope that someone else’s worst teachers end up being slightly better than the teachers they were able to trade. This operation occurs because it is so difficult to fire “bad” teachers due to Union rights and the tenure system. Districts have to jump through countless hoops to fire a teacher, and often the effort is not made despite the unanimous opinions of students and staff that a teacher is not doing his or her job.
- Michelle Rhee, the new chancellor of D.C. public schools, has tried to bring the successful charter school model of more class time, less tracking, more teacher attention, more teacher effectiveness, more teacher investment to her district. To do so, she fired principals (including the principal of her children’s school,) and closed “failing” schools–consequently enraging the teacher’s union. She offered double the merit pay for teachers who gave up tenure–using cash incentive to encourage continuous great teaching instead of the “keep breathing for two years and you get paid” mentality that can come with tenure when it is given automatically to teachers after a mere three years. Generally, I agree with all of these actions made by Ms. Rhee, but it gets to be a sticky situation when you start looking at it from the Union angle. Unions have been a staple in the American vision of “freedom” for decades, and I do believe that workers’ rights should be protected. This is particularly true with female teachers who developed Unions because they were being discriminated against–underpaid with the expectation that their husbands would provide for them. However, I think that circumstances in the modern day have changed. In our current system, Union regulations make it incredibly difficult to fire under-performing teachers. I do not want experienced teachers who belong to Unions to lose their hard earned rights (as is true with my own teachers who protested on Monday,) but I also don’t want bad teachers to be locked into the system. Charter schools also have this same sort of double bind. Though they often offer more individualized attention, alternative teaching methods, and smaller class size, they can still be run like corporations–hiring young teachers for lower salaries and pushing experienced union members out. I also think it’s pretty terrible that we have to literally turn bingo cages and read numbers off of plastic balls to give kids the opportunities charter schools offer when those same opportunities should be available to everyone. I realize I’ve gotten a bit carried away with this bullet point, but this spiral of sentences is representative of how I’ve been feeling these past few days as new information and perspective continues to be thrown my way. It’s great to be exposed to multiple viewpoints, but it makes the ability to form an opinion much more difficult. Ideally, this is how we learn. We weed through as much information as possible, and make an informed decision about how we feel. But this isn’t how it works. In high school, we wrote research papers in which we picked one strong point to argue, acknowledged the other side, and then refuted it. Ruminating upon this debate in more contexts that I ever originally imagined, I find that things aren’t so simple. I can see all sides. I have yet to choose one. I don’t have party lines to follow, and I can’t just watch a documentary and agree with every point with a bobbing head.
My hope is that someday we will be able to fix this failing system–a system where we rank 24th in the world for our performance, and 1st for confidence. A system where children from impoverished backgrounds of crime and troubled homes are expected to fail. A system where teachers aren’t assessed for their true abilities, and where clear hierarchies of students and faculty are created. In today’s work force, a college degree and “real-world” applicable education are a must. We can’t continue to rely on test scores that mask the achievement gap of minority students and fail to adequately assess the value of education.
How do we change the status quo? One of the assumptions that was made clear in “Waiting for Superman” is that kids coming from poverty ridden backgrounds, and from minority families in general, are expected to meet lower standards than those in white suburban neighborhoods. This is something I witnessed in my own town growing up. Often referred to as “White Folks Bay,” Whitefish Bay WI offered me a bitter-sweet education experience. I had an idyllic childhood–filled with afternoons frolicking in the backyards of my best friends, a pressure filled but “successful” grasp of the importance of academics, countless extra curricular activities, and tree lined streets of beautiful houses on the shoreline of Lake Michigan. Our school district is known for its “tradition of excellence,” but not for its diversity. Growing up, I watched as the kids from the city were literally bussed in every morning, and had only one African American friend. Minority students were hard to find in any of my AP classes, and though I never thought of myself as prejudiced, I realize now that I developed assumptions about white intellectual superiority just by absorbing the hidden curriculum in Whitefish Bay schools. Race wasn’t something we talked about in our classes, but it was an elephant in the room. An elephant that is now finally being addressed by the current administration.
Returning to a basement classroom of my alma mater, I sat next to my Mother and chewed on carrots and broccoli with ten or so other women as we nervously waited for the controversial conversation to begin. An effort to begin a conversation about something that had been swept under the rug for generations, this was a book study designed to make Whitefish Bay parents (and in this case, mothers) more aware of the race “problem” of our school district and our community. The book meant to start this discussion and understanding is called “Courageous Conversations,” and works as a guide to making your schools more equal–acknowledging the often subconscious assumptions made about race that are perpetuated by students, teachers, and parents alike. (Click Courageous Conversations to see a summary I made of the first 85 pages of the text) The book stresses that racism doesn’t need to be intentional, and encourages parents and administration to have often uncomfortable conversations about race in order to change the status quo.
At first, the women sitting around the table were mild-mannered and shy. Words were very carefully chosen, and I quickly realized that I too felt the discomfort that comes with recognizing your own unconscious prejudice. I was hesitant to talk about the racial divide I had experienced in high school with three black mothers sitting at the table. It was all right for me to rant on and on about a lack of diversity and the tracking of minority students in Whitefish Bay when I was enclosed in the just as white community of St.Olaf, but I had never discussed this divide with minority mothers present. I had never actually heard their side.
After tiptoeing around several questions listed on half sheets of white paper, the conversation finally started to become courageous. The principal of the middle school talked about the efforts that had been made to dis-aggregate testing data from all schools in the district–revealing a significant achievement gap between black and white students. The assistant principal of the high school talked about the explicit divisions of students among racial lines in the cafeteria. All discussed the impact of a recent “cultural” assembly that brought in an African American man who looked completely white at first glance. Performing a one man play about the identity crisis that comes with being a half-black man who “passes” for white got the kids thinking about what “white privilege” really means. We were all asked then about our personal racial consciousness. We shared stories of our racial autobiographies–spanning from my whitewashed experiences in Whitefish Bay to the tale one woman told about a fistfight that occurred between a black student and a white teacher at her Alabama high school. The African American mothers all shared one sentiment: fear. Even in this community where I grew up feeling so protected, these women feared for their children. One woman talked about how she constantly reminded her tall black son that he could not hang around like all of his privileged white friends. He had to walk with a “purpose.” When he walked from the middle school to the high school once a day to take advanced math classes, she worried about him being stopped by the Whitefish Bay police. She wondered if they would believe her son if he told them he was just going to take an algebra class and not up to no good.
A white mother with a black daughter shared this fear of assumptions. She worried about what to tell her once she was old enough to go places on her own–about how to warn her of the implications of her skin color in this town. Already, children had asked this little girl why she didn’t go home on the bus like all of the other black kids. In Whitefish Bay, if you’re white you walk to school or get dropped off, if you’re black you take the bus. This is the result of a program implemented in 1976 called the Chapter 220 program. To encourage diversity and integration, this program buses children in from nearby Milwaukee. However, reflecting upon my own education experience, this “integration” wasn’t exactly effective.
It was incredible to hear the varied perspectives of the Whitefish Bay mothers at this meeting. Once the conversation opened up, it was clear that change was possible. And yet, there were only 10 or so of us in the room. How many more people and parents need to ultimately be included for this change to become a reality? How much more uncomfortable in our conversation do we need to get? The leaders of this discussion stressed that this change and the pace of the conversation were intentionally slow. In a community where tradition and nostalgia are so embedded, it is hard to bring about change. I understand the practicality of slow and steady change, but I don’t necessarily agree with it. Talking to my Mom after this 2 hour study, we agreed that change needs to happen now. But how do we push against this deeply seated system? How do we move forward and change it? How as a parent will I one day have conversations with my kids about race? The African American mothers in this book study had to start talking about race with their kids and its ramifications from a very young age. The white parents never really had the discussion. They never had to. How will I change this with my kids? How do I preach tolerance at home if they are exposed to so many hidden assumptions every day in their classrooms?
My parents considered diversity when they moved to Whitefish Bay. For them, the lack of diversity was a major downside of the seemingly idyllic community. Coming from San Francisco where diversity was a given, this lily-white community was a stark contrast. If they wanted us to be exposed to different cultures, they had to be intentional about it. This became more and more difficult as we got older. We went on several eye-opening trips as a family, but we never really experienced life outside of our bubble. I recognize now that the same is true in my experience away at college. I chose a school on a hill with a very large population of white students in part because I felt “at home” there. Subconsciously, I chose another homogeneous community. Looking to break out of this bubble, I went to a local elementary school in Northfield in order to work with a more diverse population of students. There, I work with several latino students and observe their relationships with their white peers. I feel good about helping out at a school that makes a valiant effort to close the achievement gap. However, as the book “Courageous Conversations” points out, there are still things that I don’t know I don’t know. The hardest place to be in this race debate, and in the education debate in general, is in the place where you believe you have a firm, compassionate, and informed stance. We never know all of the nuances of an issue. We fail to acknowledge how much we are influenced by what we do not see and our own upbringings. In order to fully realize what we actually “know” we need to begin with our own individual lenses. We need to look inward before looking out.