I often hear that our educational system is bad. But let’s get this clear right away: it works in a lot of places.
It's not that our educational system itself is bad. It is that we are not properly addressing, or even acknowledging, the areas of the system that need changing. Magnet schools, selective enrollment schools, IB schools, some Christian schools, some Charter schools, and many suburban districts are doing just fine. Every year these schools churn out millions of smart, capable students that go on to do great work. They get accepted into great institutions and thrive there. These students make our country, and the world, better.
However, we do have a problem. This problem is in two main places: urban and rural school districts. These districts, also, churn out many great students that go on to do great things. Every year, these schools produce great human beings that rise above all types of terrible situations to do extraordinary things. These individuals deserve a lot of credit. Far too often, these students succeed in spite of their schools.
The schools they come from often need to do more. They can do more. And if they do, the same students that succeed despite them could go on to achieve even more amazing things. This is my main issue. Schools in rural and urban areas could be doing more. They must do more. We owe that to the children.
To be born black and in poverty should not mean that you get access to a sub-par education. To be born to shitty parents that can't handle their own problems and addictions should not mean that you have to suffer. Rather, when the lack of stability is present, our schools - which form the bedrock of our nation - need to step their game up. If and when they don't, we ignore the least of these; which, to me, is the worst thing you can do.
I've been in and around a lot of bad schools, and, consequently, heard many terrible excuses. I am not a man that likes excuses. Many of the people that run schools like to say that education is like a three-legged stool. One leg is the school, one leg is the parents, one leg is the community. With these three legs holding their weight, a child can be properly educated.
Though I hate this analogy, I will use it to address a few things. The analogy is often said to parents, in the guise of encouragement, attempting to show how important parents are to a child's success. It is said it to show that parents, and also community, are equal partners. And this, for my money, is both where the analogy fails and also where excuses begin. One reason is that this line of thinking is where reality and ideology part. Some students have bad parents, neglectful parents, and some entire communities struggle. If there are only three legs to a stool, these students are screwed before they even get the chance to sit.
I'm not against analogies. In fact, I like them on a lot of fronts. I don't even mind using places to sit as an analogy for education. But when you use an analogy of a three-legged stool, you fail on a lot of fronts. You also fail to see the variety of stools, and the fact that the much more common means of sitting - the chair - has four legs. There are countless varieties of couches and love-seats that have room for more than one person, while also having support beams. And if we're gonna use a stool, for a lot these shitty districts that stool has become the porcelain throne.
In the districts where it works, the three-legged stool is a great way to think of it. It prompts parents and communities to think how they can help. In these places, local businesses help with booster clubs, donations, and sponsorships; parents read to children, help with homework, and volunteer in and around the school. Great. But where the legs are lacking, I propose thinking - instead of a three-legged stool - of education as a nice, sturdy couch with room for several people sit, supported by six legs. Because if we're going to be direct about it, that's what some kids, and communities, need.
In much of America, as has been the case since the beginning of our nation, urban and rural areas face many of the same problems. Though these communities have been set against one another, deliberately, based upon skin color, the problems faced within them are similar problems. In many urban and rural communities, people are poor, and with that poverty comes several problems. When they have children, those problems are brought to school. So one leg of that stool is already weak.
Also, poorer people have more children. They have these children at younger ages. They are not able to support the children (financially speaking) as well as people with more means. Poorer people are often less educated, and therefore know less to teach their children in the first place. So when homework or reading is brought home, many of the parents cannot give the same time and effort to the work as more educated parents. So another leg of that stool is weak. Also, poorer people often eat, and have access to, less healthy foods than wealthier people, and therefore suffer from different types of problems and situations than those able to purchase better, healthier foods and medicine.
And finally, which really adds insult to injury, these schools are often poorly run. Many teacher and administrators are placed in these schools 'to learn' or else come to pad their resume before leaving for a 'better' district. While good schools have low turn over, many urban and rural schools have very high turnover. So even in them, no one knows who is in charge, or who to call to ask questions. This means things are run poorly, with less stability and more change. This weakens that third leg.
When parents and communities come in to a school already behind their more well-to-do peers, of course they are going to underperform.
Rather than make excuses, and rather than call the system broken, what we should do is look at the places that need more help, and give more support to those places.
This is not judgmental or bigoted. Rather, it's the opposite. When we avoid the truth, we create greater problems. When we don't properly look at things, we miss the root of the problem. When we miss the root, we do not fix what is broken.
And this matters.
So often we mistake what's broken for the whole thing, not realizing that it isn't the whole thing. The whole thing actually works pretty well. We should celebrate the places that are doing well. We should look to those schools and ask what they are doing and how it can be emulated. We should then emulate that success in schools that fail. For my money, which we're already spending anyway, I say the first thing we can do is address the actual problem. Until we do that, we'll be using bad analogies and making excuses.
Finally, I propose that our analogy for schools that need a bit more help should be that of a nice, sturdy couch that simply needs a few more legs for support. And, maybe. Just maybe, the one who's sitting simply needs someone to sit with them for a while, until they are able to do so on their own.