Tragedies of Inequality: How Far Have We Really Come?

Today I pulled brightly colored popsicle sticks from carefully labeled clear plastic slots and called the names of students who sat quietly in a circle listening to their teacher read a story with cheerful emotion on her lips. With bouncing excitement, the children who were called scurried over in pairs. Telling me about their spring break adventures, these 7 and 8 year olds have come to know me well over the past 6 months. Walking down clean carpeted hallways to the open-walled library that makes up the center of their school, these Greenvale Elementary 2nd graders knew our Tuesday/Thursday routine. Each week there were new books to be read, and stories to be shared with “Miss Andrea.” One student, a shy brown-eyed Latino boy with the  sheepish smile of a lost puppy, tells me that someday he wants to read the books in the library that I love. He spoke of his hope that I would take him to the library one day next year and he would be able to read me a page from my favorite book when I was his age. I told him I couldn’t wait for that day, that I was proud of him, and that he’d come a long way already since I’d first met him. In two hours a week, I’ve developed individual relationships with each of the children in Ms. Dueffert’s 2nd grade class, and watched each of them grow. I know the reading levels of each, and have the time and patience to sort through book selections until they find a “just right book” twice a week that meets their reading level. Though it often feels like what I do in tutoring these kids is mostly common sense, I make a difference.

Watching them shuffle down the hall in a single file line to receive skim milk and nutritious snacks, I realize how good these children have it. I realize the fortune into which I was born. I think of the neatly tiled hallways of my elementary school, and the endless art supplies at my fingertips. I realize that I never did anything to “deserve” my privilege, but I will reap the benefits of its success. Seldom did I think about the reasoning behind the monochrome sea of white in my AP classes and “gifted and talented” programs. I have never stepped foot inside an inner city public school. I have not had to experience the discomfort of perpetual hunger, or competed with 44 other students for the attention of one often truant teacher. I have always had access to multiple computer labs, one-on-one work with my teachers, thousands of library books filled with spotless pages, auditoriums of soft red folded seats, and the opportunity to fly overseas with my high school orchestra before I even reached 18. Never have I seen the tangible evidence of what my excessive privilege has taken away from the countless failing American schools on streets my parents and society deemed “unsafe.”

In the revealing 1992 ethnography Savage Inequalities written by Jonathan Kozol, the gross disparities of the public school system I never witnessed are put on display in elegant yet horrific descriptions of decrepit public school buildings filled with holes and raw sewage, children who are told what they can’t achieve, and the infamous court case of Plessy vs. Ferguson that proves unsolved as schools remain “separate but unequal.” Though Kozol’s controversial text is dated and many of his statistics have changed, the feeling evoked is all too familiar. Echoing the portrayal of “dropout factories” in both Waiting for Superman and The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Kozol visits schools in Mississippi, Illinois, New York, Maryland, and Texas to paint a picture of the extreme disparities in educational opportunities–from the perspective of both the racial and economic divide (which, arguably, are inextricably linked.) He covers too the issue of “good” and “bad” teachers–frustrated babysitters versus inspirational gurus. In his rhetoric, we hear the modern voice of the Teacher’s Union Debate, and the constant hum of budget cuts.

Kozol tells us about an advanced Home Ec class in a Mississippi school that works to train poor black students for future work in fast food restaurants. He speaks of a school in East St. Louis named for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.–a school infested with sewage and populated entirely with black students. He tells of the stories of children in Chicago who come to school at age five with an innocent optimism and willingness to learn, only to give up by sixth grade when they figure out that no one has invested in them–they are expected to fail. They aren’t viewed by the government or society as deserving of the gleaming white hallways and massive facilities of nearby New Trier. The disheartening tales continue. Privilege is consistently manipulated. Equality is discussed, but never carried through. Change is made slowly, for fear of rocking the boat. Again and again, the people on top (inevitably the white upper middle class) aren’t willing to give up enough to make any lasting change in the disparity.

Reading about court cases and appeals to end the injustice Kozol witnessed, I was reminded of a discussion we had in my American Conversations course this past Monday. “How do you measure progress?” our gray-haired professor asked from his position at a desk intermingled with our own; “Is it through the creation of laws? Or does it extend beyond that?” In so many cases, laws don’t cut it. Institutionalization and cultural habits die hard. Unfortunately, the passing of law on paper doesn’t often do much to change this attitude. Changing culture is a practice that takes time and intricacy. As Kozol points out, we inhabit a country where segregation persists despite the civil rights movement. My experience with Courageous Conversations in my own home town is an example of this. We have not come so far as we would like to believe. These are not struggles of the past, they are oppressions of the present. They are issues we sweep beneath the rug and hide behind doctored test scores, gerrymandered districts, and unequally distributed funds. We treat our schoolchildren and their education in a sort of “triage” system–“saving” those with the most “potential.” And yet, this potential is determined by the privileged upper rung. We expose some children to an education fit for royalty, and others to educations literally filled with scum. We craft their environments and their childhoods, and hold them responsible for who they become.

At many points in reading this book, I attempted to convince myself that things are different now. I thought about the compassion of my peers, the recent efforts of affluent school districts to finally disaggregate test data and acknowledge the achievement gaps that plague our education system, and the strength of organizations like “Teach For America.” However, a brief discussion among the girls on my track team this morning at breakfast after a lengthy 5 am pool practice reminded me of the unintentional biases we all still hold. Smearing peanut butter across a toasted bagel, Sally mentioned the fact that her high school did not make any AP classes available. The reactions of shock were immediate. “Didn’t you feel like that was unfair since so many other schools had them and they help you so much with GEs when you get to college?” “What about the kids who need to be challenged?” “Don’t the parents feel like they aren’t getting the most for their money? Their kids can’t really compete…can they?”

Sally chose her words carefully. She explained the logic: her school didn’t want the kids to be tracked. They wanted everyone to learn together, and the avoid the extreme “teaching to the test” that so often occurs with AP classes. The students were still challenged–picking courses that interested them and understanding that some were harder than others, and they took college level courses and general education requirements once they arrived at college. And yet, yes, parents were still livid. They are in the process of demanding the Advanced Placement courses necessary for their children to “keep up.”

The girls at the table chewed and nodded. They saw both sides of the argument. Still, they wondered what it would be like to continue to learn in the same classroom as the “disruptive” students–no longer separated by the clear class divide. It is interesting to juxtapose this conversation with the way Kozol discusses AP classes in his book. In the school districts he addresses, AP classes being offered at “failing” institutions is an incredibly positive thing. It demonstrates an investment and hope in the students–telling them that they can go to college and meet the same challenges as their white suburban counterparts. AP becomes a way to level the playing field. Sally’s school essentially does the same thing, but with the absence of AP. Both make sense… I suppose it depends on the particular school in which this curriculum is taking place. In the case of Sally’s school, a separation of “gifted” (and mostly white) students is prevented. For Kozol’s case studies, minorities are included in the white AP grouping. The difference is subtle, but important. I find this to be a recurring theme. Thinking that the inequalities of our education system are due to race is different from thinking they are due to socioeconomic status which is also different than thinking that they have to do with family background, government funding and attention, or teacher quality. Yet, all are linked.

The issue of injustice in the American education system is one that has gone on for the past century. It is one I am quickly discovering to be a bear of complexity. I read, I watch, I listen, and my head begins to spin. I wonder if the birth of my own children and the payment of my own mortgage will leave me self interested and willing to ignore the problems I cannot see from my doorstep. I am determined to make sure this is not the case. I want to live in a place at some point in my life that contradicts everything I have grown up knowing. I will have to deal with horrible plumbing, fear, and calculated costs. I would like to teach in a district where the children are expected to fail, and see if I can change their minds. I want to be half as independent as they are forced to be–choosing futures without the advice of counselors or teachers who know their first names. I want to take all of this digging I have done into the issue, and do something with it. I don’t want to be afraid that I don’t know enough. I want to make the most of my education. With the aid of a connecting mind, dedicated professors, and youthful ambition, the process begins.


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2 Responses to Tragedies of Inequality: How Far Have We Really Come?

  1. It is refreshing to hear an acknowledgement of self-interest. You acknowledge “fear” and “calculated costs” arising from teaching in a poorer school district. Do you really want to help the children of those who would not hesitate to make you another victim of robbery or worse? I know you’ll say “yes” because you feel too guilty to say “no.” But you shouldn’t feel afraid to say “no,” because their refusal to play by society’s rules is precisely what makes it dangerous enough for you to “fear” teaching in a depressed area. Any unemployed or poor person can claim it’s okay to scoff the laws and mores of society because society somehow “wronged” him/her, but he/she cannot succeed without following society’s laws and mores. Helping a habitual rule breaker merely shows it’s okay to play by a relaxed set of rules “because the rules are unfair,” that it’s okay to fail your math tests “because valuing arithmetic is a cultural bias,” that it’s okay to speak improperly “because syntax and grammar are arbitrary anyway,” and that it’s okay to go to prison once “because everyone else who went to prison was able to raise a family, hence so will you.”
    If you’re going to place yourself on a limb for predominantly rebellious, uncooperative folks, at least explain why failure is not an option. Also, I’ve nominated you to be’s next “Life After College” guest blogger. Their blog recruiters seem to get high on liberal arts idealism, so I explained your blog would sate their thirst.

  2. Pingback: UNESCO’s Global Literacy Challenge: The Right to Read | growingupinamerica

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