Ignoring the Issue Behind the Issues – Ryan Rhoades

CCDHS Classroom, Miles City

Image by dave_mcmt via Flickr

As I watched Making the Grade, the MSNBC’s special segment on the state of the nation’s education system, I couldn’t help but notice how the real issue was largely ignored.

The moderator, Tamron Hall, hinted at the real issue a few times, particularly when she asked Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan about the gap between the amount of money we as taxpayers spend per student versus the amount of money we spend per prisoner (we spend more than double for imprisoning than educating).  Duncan’s response ultimately went back to accountability and graduation – holding teachers more accountable for their results and getting more students, particularly minority students, to graduate.

As a certified teacher, I completely agree with the sentiment that schools must hold their teachers accountable in order to ensure success.  This is no revelation.  All workers must be held accountable in order to ensure a successful outcome.

Imagine if all our politicians were held accountable, not by citizens’ vote alone but by an objective rubric that measures whether or not their policies improves the standard of living of most Americans, most notably the poor and middle class.  Teachers hold students accountable through rubric-based assessments and in many public schools teachers are also held accountable through rubric-based evaluations.

Focusing on accountability alone is the red herring in this argument.  It fails to address how federal policies, such as general funding, high stakes testing, ratio of students per teacher, and the standards that teachers must follow to prepare students for standardized testing.

One of the guests on MSNBC’s special talked about the importance of teachers giving enough attention to their students and developing rapport.  Obviously we as educators want to make students feel at home and want to develop positive relationships with all our students.  However, if a teacher has thirty or more students in each classroom and teaches four or five classes a day, it is difficult if not impossible to cater to all these individual needs, especially if many of these students do not receive basic needs at home.

The ability to teach content and critical thinking skills is hampered not just by the lack of financial resources or by the number of quality teachers or the participation of parents or the amount of community support, but by the underlying causes of all these factors: the policies that determine the strength and scope of our public institutions and the opportunities provided to lower and middle class Americans.

One of the guests aptly put the role of teacher as the “second parent” who must take on responsibilities outside of teaching the content.  Children spend most of their waking hours within the confines of the school environment.  Adolescents are socialized and form their identity and personality in this environment.  For students who only have one parent at home or whose parents lack a college education (90% of Hispanic parents and 80% of African-American parents), the school environment is even more crucial for their potential success and opportunity for social mobility.  Yet many schools are forced to ask parents to donate basic teaching supplies and, according to a recent news article, even toilet paper!  Our government does not bat an eye when it comes to funding warfare or giving trillions of dollars to Wall Street banks.  Yet these same politicians cannot adequately support the primary agent of democracy within our own country?  Not only is this wrong, it’s hard to think of it being anything other than criminal!

Another guest speaker, Jeff Johnston, spoke on the sad fact that many young kids in school are brilliant and bored.  Well, why are they bored?  Is it just because the teachers are boring?  If so, why are they boring?  Again, the reasons for this are more obvious than some of the guests let on.  When students ask, “Why do we need to know this” or “How will we use this in the future”, I doubt they are simply seeking attention or attempting to challenge authority for the sake of it (although many students do).  After serious reflection, the students have a point: they understand that our educational system is about job preparation, acing tests, getting into college, etc…

Is this hazardous for democracy?  Should students believe that the end result of education is test preparation and career education?  Should students believe that they are simply “raw materials”, as Mario Savio famously stated during the sit-in address at the University of California-Berkeley in 1964?  What are the moral consequences of structuring our educational system like a corporation instead of stressing how to contribute to positive change in our democracy?  Do students even know how to be active citizens anymore?  Recent current events should make us all concerned about our future as a functioning democracy.

As an institution, our educational system is not a high priority and it becomes increasingly obvious that the economic decisions politicians make in no way favors or prioritizes education as a human right.  Following the money trail will bring you to this conclusion, particularly when looking at the sad fact that taxpayers in some states spend more money on prisoners than on students.  Tamron Hall revealed a startling fact when she said that 82% of schools are laying off teachers, mainly due to budget cuts.  Is this safe for democracy?

I am not talking about just one issue, but one of many issues that, taken together, form the basis of why our educational system, like many public institutions in our nation, is failing on many levels.

I am not talking about our federal budget, and how we spend more money on “defense” than we do on education.  I am not talking about the relationship between Congress, our law-making body, and lobbyists, people who donate millions and millions of dollars to influence the laws that Congress makes.

I am not talking about our inadequate national response to Hurricane Katrina, and how political and economic officials were talking about “opportunities” the storm created, such as ending public housing and replacing public schools with charter schools – extremely detrimental to minorities in New Orleans.  I am not talking about the glaringly racist and classist statistics that detail the growing inequality between the rich and the poor in general and between white America and minority America in particular.

I am not talking about the growing divide between Wall Street and Main Street, or how the federal bailout has mostly benefited the bankers responsible for the financial meltdown while middle class America continues to suffer from record-levels of unemployment, underemployment, home foreclosures, vanishing pensions, and stagnant wages despite increased productivity.

Finally, I am not talking about the role that the media plays in conveying important information to the public, mainly serving as the mouthpiece of either the Democrat or Republican Party – leaving no room for independent or third party alternatives to the policies that have resulted in our current image as a struggling democracy becoming surpassed by other countries in areas that we were once envied over.

What I am talking about is how ALL of these are interconnected and how elected officials of both parties have failed to promote our nation as a shining example of democratic values.  While teachers serve as a convenient scapegoat for many politicians and social critics, the truth is that, inadequate teachers aside, we have failed to hold our politicians accountable.  To the critical observer, our government has become so corrupted and infiltrated by big business that it’s difficult to distinguish the two apart.

This is made evident not only by public poll numbers showing our distrust of government institutions and big business, but also by statistics showing our growing economic inequalities and the political decisions that fuel these.

While some of the statistics revealed in this special were shocking (see statistical summary below), I believe that we need to look behind the underlying factors that perpetuate these unfortunate statistics.  For example, there was a lot of attention given to our nation’s falling math and science scores compared to the rest of the world (25th in math and 21st in science).

What about social studies?  The fact that there is even a controversy about the Islamic community center being built near Ground Zero in NYC baffles me.  These are basic First Amendment rights, a complete non-issue.  President Obama, our first non-white President, is believed to be Muslim by nearly 20% of the population.  The sad part is that, all falsities and media distortions aside, this should not even matter, whatsoever.  How can so much hate and ignorance be so widespread in 21st Century America?

Our politicians and the powerful elite who have the ability to change this from the top down have shown no signs of advancing democratic education, let alone giving our current “test crazy” school system proper funding or additional faculty support.

We can continue to scapegoat all those “wealthy” teachers for our country’s problems and we can continue to allow the mainstream media to distract us with the 24/7 news cycle spin zone, but it will not lead us down the path of modern progress.  Only a large mass movement of people demanding another New Deal-like program focused on job creation, education, rebuilding our infrastructure, and reinventing a new, green manufacturing base will be sufficient to turn things around for the middle class.

Imagine how students would respond to seeing our government taking accountability and spending money on our future and not on war or on Wall Street bailouts or on corporate welfare.  Maybe if the nearly 50% of black fourth grade students attending impoverished schools see their government fixing the ghettos, ending the racism within the criminal justice system and spending more money on their dilapidated schools than on imprisonment they will become more motivated to stay in school instead of dropping out at a rate of 40%.

In short, we need to end all of the charades about where the true problem lies.  It is not the quality of teachers or the presence of Muslims or the “War on Terror”.  The real problem is a corrupt and greedy two-party government financed by an even greedier and wealthier “ownership class”.  So what are we going to do about it?

Here are some other statistics presented by MSNBC on Making the Grade:

Violence in schools: 1.5 million nonfatal crimes in school versus 1.1 million nonfatal crimes outside of schools; 16% of white children say there are gangs in school; 36% of Hispanic students report gangs at school; 38% of black students report gangs at school.

Parents’ education: 9 out of 10 Hispanic kids have mothers without degrees; 4 out of 5 Black children have mothers without bachelors degree; 62% of Hispanic adults have a high school diploma, while 92% of white adults have a diploma.

Dropout rate: Nationwide average is 25%; African-Americans = 40%; Hispanic-Americans = 38%; 75% of all dropouts are minorities. 12th out of 36 nations in graduating students from college.

Teacher pay (May 2008): Median wage $47,100 – $51,180; Bottom 10% = $30,970 – $34,280; Top 10% = $75,190 – $80,970.

Family life: 56% of black children under the age of 18 live with a single mom; 75% white students live with married parents compare to 34% of black students.

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