What I’ve Learned About Education

Today is my final day at Hopkins, attending the last lecture of the last class I need to complete the requirements for my teaching certificate.  I’m forking over about $1600 for this class so I can get a piece of paper that I likely will never use.  But it seems like I should have something tangible to represent the amount of experience and formal education I accumulated these past two years.  Anyhow, my professor, who is awesome, is pretty lax about computer usage in her class, so I spent much of my class time composing this entry.

I’m going to get a little controversial today, but sometimes there’s a need to have unpleasant discussions.  I’ve tried to be careful in the phrasing I use, but I’m sure I have left room for things written here to be interpreted in ways that I don’t mean them.  If you think I could be more clear about what I mean to say and what I don’t mean to say, please let me know.

I truly believe that the problems of education in the inner-city are essentially cultural in nature, and that’s all it comes down to.   I say this because of the huge difference in performance between kids that were born and raised in Baltimore, kids that moved to Baltimore later in life, and foreign-born children who end up in Baltimore.  I firmly believe that kids in Baltimore have the same inherent intelligence as kids anywhere, excepting for the handful that suffer from lead poisoning (yeah, lead poisoning, in the 21st century, insane, right?), so something must explain the differences in achievement.

I have taught foreign students that have come to the US not speaking a lick of English and seen them make unbelievable progress.  I have also taught foreign students who have started out strong and then stalled.  Without exception, my foreign-born students have been extremely respectful and hard working upon arrival at the school, but they mature in different ways.  The difference seems to be in how much the student assimilated into the “Baltimore culture”.

Let me be clear about this, when I say “Baltimore culture”, I’m not talking about any kids in and of themselves, I’m talking about the beliefs and behaviors many of them exhibit.  Let me start by saying there are positive aspects of the Baltimore culture.  Chief in my mind is that most of my Baltimore students seem to be extremely gregarious and socially aware. But from my observations, regardless of race, the  negative aspects that describe the dominant Baltimore culture  are anti-intellectual, overly interested in attention to self,  negligent of long-term planning,  looking to slip by with minimal effort, disinterested in exceeding expectations, and demanding of instant gratification.  In many ways, I think the Baltimore culture imitates the culture of our society as a whole, just on steroids.  I’d sum it up by describing it as a culture of entitlement, to the extreme.  And it seems to be infectious.  When kids move in from outside the city, it seems like it’s usually only a matter of time before they start exhibiting those traits.

I strongly believe that there is nothing innate about those negative aspects of the culture;  they are taught and learned, just like algebra.  There are people who subscribe to these culture values everywhere, but in most places, the level that we see most of these behaviors would be considered extreme.  Here, it is the norm, and academic success and jail are the extremes.  I can try to explain to the kids that what goes on in Baltimore would be considered absurd where I grew up, but to kids who grew up only here, what they see is just reality.  The newcomers tend to fall in line either because they want to fit in or because it looks like fun.  The bravest of them choose to retain outsider values and remain on the fringe of the school social environment.  And to be fair, I do teach the occasional Baltimore-raised student that has managed through excellent parenting and good choices to remain out of the fray, but I can only think of a couple examples.

As educators, to me the only cures to this cultural issue are:

a) getting all kids out of this toxic environment (by busing or  boarding school)

b) diluting the environment by integrating the schools, or

c) changing the city’s culture, starting with the school building.

The first two options involve major taxpayer expense and force the successful schools to have to deal with low-income children (gasp!), so they are likely to never be implemented on a large scale.  The problem with the last option is that, for many of the kids, all the work we do in school to promote positve culture is systematically undone when dismissal bell rings, especially that last bell that starts summer break.  I see our original 6th graders, who were so sweet last year, exhibiting some horrible behaviors in the hallway as rising 8th graders.  It’s as though somewhere, they leave school to go somewhere to be trained to recite explicit song lyrics and curse at each other, with no regard for who is in earshot.  Of course, middle schoolers are crazy everywhere, but they are a special kind of crazy in the city.

Major change seems to be past the horizon for now, because frankly, to most Americans, what happens in the inner-city is out of sight, out of mind.  But that’s starting to change.  Thank goodness that awareness of the issues in education are finally starting to attract more and more notice from the general public.  Teach For America is now a household name.  People from outside education have heard of DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee and former Chicago schools head/current Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.  Well-informed or not, pro or con, everyone has an opinion on No Child Left Behind.  Thinkers in education are continuing to plan the next big surge to close the achievement gap.  So far, there are lots of ideas, but few projects that have shown unqualified success.  In the end, there just isn’t going to be a silver bullet, and my belief is that the problem isn’t going to get solved without some major introspection and sacrifices on the part of every American.  I just don’t think at the end of the day that it’s possible to warehouse our poorest, least educated citizens in ghettos and provide them with quality education at the same time.  Separate-but-equal didn’t work after emancipation, and it’s not going to work now.  I hope that one day, people will get pissed enough, like they did in the mid-20th century, and there will finally be another civil rights movement.

I may be leaving teaching, but I’d like to think that I’m not running away.  I strongly believe that these kids deserve educational opportunities, regardless of what cultural issues exist.  As I move on to the next phase, I know I will find ways to remain strongly involved in the discussion of how to change education in our country and in the lives of kids on a day to day basis.

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