Tuesday, June 12, 2012

GUEST BLOG: Systems of Oppression Manifested through Public Education

I am happy to share with you this guest blog by an amazing man that I recently met, and who impresses me deeply in so many ways. He is an educator that puts his love of teaching and his critical eye of the impact of systems of oppression both within the school system and without out as a framework for reaching his students. Which he does. Thank you for this. And thank you for breaking down the systems that were meant to keep us from becoming more than cogs in a machine. Teachers like you are the ones that really make the world shift on its axis.

Systems of Oppression Manifested through Public Education
by P. Scari 

I'm not sure how much I can actually discuss, and I won't name names -- and it will be a matter of public record anyway since brilliant (said with a high degree of sarcasm) Mayor Bloomberg releases teacher data reports (i.e. the names of teachers tied to scores) which is extremely problematic for a number of reasons, so I wanted to discuss a few thoughts I had.

Today I was told I essentially did better than last year in terms of my kids' tests. It's only an initial score (I won't even get into how problematic that whole entire thing is), in other words, it's not the full score of the test, and it largely (that's an unfortunate understatement) determines students' going to summer school, but despite its only being initial, it looks much improved compared to last year.

At first, and to some degree still, I am happy about this. Who wouldn't be? Who wouldn't be thrilled that his kids made (as it stands to appear now) gains as measured by a biased state exam? But now -- I have to wonder... how authentic is this? Did they become better readers? Did they actually become better writers? Do I have other forms of evidence to support this? Or, did they just become better, savvier test-takers (which, I suppose, is an important skill in our test-drenched society)?

I was surprised by certain kids. Saddened by others. I had tears in my eyes for both kids who made gains, the work and effort I felt I put in, and kids who didn't. You want to "save" all of them, after all.

Was it me? It takes a village, so wasn't it also the help of everyone? My colleagues? Other teachers? Saturday programs? How could I determine what is actually attributed to my doing? Would I ever be able to? Isn't that one of the fundamental problems about releasing scores-- that you'll never truly know if a teacher made the difference or not? And does any of it even really matter?

Was it the class size? After all, I did have smaller numbers this year than last. I am convinced that, when it comes to English and literacy instruction, small numbers are critical. They allow for the fostering of deeper relationships; they allow for those reluctant readers and writers to read, write, share, and explore out loud. Maybe, instead, I am just one of those teachers whose style isn't conducive to big class instruction?

Not only this, but especially when it comes to English (although I think any subject): testing takes the love and joy out of learning that subject. Reading is aesthetic. In the real world, we pick up things we want to read. Hopefully, we work at jobs we want and choose to work at because of our passion for it, and therefore, anything we read within that job is something we want and choose to read. I think of my Montessori training, her empirical research with kids living below the poverty line in situations where the poverty looked like more of what many of us picture "poverty" to resemble, and not where, say, my kids live (which also happens to be the poorest Congressional district in the United States). Her research showed us so much about how kids really learn tied to a working philosophy and a deep understanding of human development. I don't want to go into it because I am not mentally prepared today to open the debate about this subject (Montessori's research specifically), which I feel a zeal and passion for on a visceral level, but my point in this is: how do you honestly test English? How do you honestly test any subject? I can see the perspective of love and passion and desire to learn a subject, any subject? I can see hands-on approaches for most subjects. I question the point. What's the ultimate point of testing?

So I think: what about the kids who became (or didn't became) actual focused, critical thinkers? Does this test reflect that (and to what extent)? What about the kids who didn't become this? (Why is that? How much time was spent preparing and teaching kids to take a test as opposed to think, and are the two diametrically opposed, or can one, and did I, teach critical thinking skills through test sophistication?)

What about the kids who became better human beings? How is that measured? All of the human moments and 'teachable' moments... how are those measured? What about kids who can't read, nor write, but verbally answer questions? What about kids who'd do better through performance-based assessments? Is it all about this? The numbers? The data? Is that so bad?

The test is biased. I could cite specific examples from even this year's state test, which back up what I am saying. It is biased in favor of a specific demographic. I can say having had multiple experiences that no group of children in any one demographic is "better" than any other group. In fact, I often find that kids from demographics composed of lower socioeconomic statuses are much more savvy, cultured, worldly, and better critical thinkers -- this may not mean they are the best test-takers, readers, or writers. Then again, I suppose it depends on one's definitions of "cultured" or "savvy" etc. etc. What I do know to be true is that there wasn't one, single "urban" piece of text on this year's state test and this, by its very nature is a bias. With more human beings living in urban centers globally than none urban centers, this fact seems unjust and unfair. There wasn't even a balance in terms of the content. There was a text on one of this year's predictive assessments (an assessment used to determine how kids might do on the state test) which was set on a vineyard. Not a single one of our kids knew what a vineyard was. And why should they? That's not a a part of their world. I didn't begin to think outside of my scope until college, and yet, they are asking for our middle school kids to do just that when developmentally, human beings don't begin to do that on average until high school. Why not put a text on the test set on the subway, calling it by the local colloquialism, the train? Or would that be too confusing for their suburban and rural counterparts who more than likely have more opportunity for actual physical exposure to a vineyard given the area in which they reside? I didn't want to give an example, and there are many, many more, but it brings to light a very simple bias taken for granted. I dare anyone to say it's not bias. If you do, you obviously have never taught middle school.

I could go on and on. But, in short, while I am happy and humbled by the initial success of my kids, I am disturbed, too. The system is tied to arbitrary scores in a way it should not be. I am no more successful than last year. Sometimes you have a good year and sometimes you don't. The general public will see a teacher and based on sheer numbers alone determine a teacher's effectiveness. That's the whole point, really, no matter what anyone says: it's an "I gotcha." The kids in puppet fashion do well on a test, and you're an effective teacher. The kids don't, and you're not. Of course, they are coming up with other ways of assessing teachers... but the reality is, this one thing, that may not seem like an issue to most, especially those who aren't in the system, or those who don't think critically, actually highlights quite poignantly many of the systemic and pervasive issues latent, dormant, active and working within the educational system locally and at large. Now, if I say, well why do we even need grades (to which I can cite specific, measurable, successful, and both affluent and poor socioeconomic scenarios), I would be pegged a what? A socialist? A communist? An anarchist? Because how would we, how could we, keep the sheep at bay? How would society function if our kids weren't placed within this sick, fucked up dynamic whereby their worth was measured according to grades based on some arbitrary system? What would the result be? Would it be the end of civilization as we know it (God forbid, we actually, authentically elevate all in a simultaneous, differentiated, understanding and compassionate fashion)?

I'll end with this: what's the point of education? To subdue and train the masses or to actually educate? All are capable of learning-- it's an innate human quality. So, is it a number we are focused on, or, actually, education? And what does that education look like? And please, don't give me that righteous bullshit about, "well, if the kids wanted to learn, they would, and I worked so damn hard, and I walked 10 miles through the snow..." No. Good for you. Save it and save your privilege. Everyone can learn and that's why I became a teacher. To teach. To help human beings better, evolve, and grow. And to help kids who don't realize their potential hopefully begin to realize that yes, they can learn, despite everything in their world that may be telling them they can't, they shouldn't and / or they won't. We live in a complicated world and I pray, as should all of you, this system gets figured out such that we produce authentically critical thinking human beings who want to be and see the value in becoming contributing members of a complex and beautifully diverse society. I dare not think of the consequences and alternative scenarios if this isn't figured out: I would not want to live in a society where anarchy and ignorance reigned nor where everyone was just another brick in the wall. And please, spare the comparisons to other countries, too. Your evidence would be based on, surprisingly enough, test scores. I do not recognize that as substantial for the reasons cited above, therefore your argument is invalid to me.


  1. Very focused article, by someone who is walking the walk as well as talking the talk. Thank you.

    How is the change that is so vitally needed going to happen? Some of the things I learned as a school administrator is that there is no time to teach critical thinking; no time to teach the rudiments of the English language (and here I mean the parts of speech, sentence structure, paragraph structure, etc); but all the time in the world to teach to a test.

    Another challenge is that there is NO NATIONAL STANDARD that says what an education should be from Pre-K through 12th grade.

    There is a reason why Paolo Freire's "Pedagogy of the Oppressed" is still a masterpiece decades after its premiere.

    I must reflect and then do some more on this issue, somehow.

  2. Amen.

    I teach middle school in Minneapolis. Full discloser, I went to school with Mr. Lacy. I agree 100% with everything you stated. In middle school, it is impossible to judge the effectiveness of one teacher on a test. I have students for one hour a day. You want to judge me on that? Bull.

    Your thoughts on what education is great. I teach a program called AVID (www.avid.org). It boils down to inquiry, collaboration, writing, and a focus on the future. It doesn't teach content but helps students be better in all the other contents. I love it for that fact. I don't care what you are learning in math but I want you to know how to learn it. It's a great model. I don't have a lot of Montessori information but it seems to build on that philosophy.

    I want to say one more thing and I'll be done. My only contention is that you didn't address families and parents. I agree with you when you say that everyone can learn. I will contend that not everyone is able to learn. I have had students in my class that can't sleep at home because they are scared to sleep because they don't know what mom's boyfriend is going to do next. I have students who come to school high because it's okay in their home. I have students who spend the night babysitting their younger brothers. I have students don't want to go home because they know their only meals come from school.

    All this leads to students who aren't able to learn. They have too much other shit happening in their lives. How well would you do on a single test on day if you had this other stuff happening?

    Until we figure out a way to make everything in a student's life better and more geared toward learning, we won't see the successes that we need, no matter how good of a teacher we are.

    Keep up the good work. I enjoyed reading your thought.s


Thank you for sharing your thoughts, feelings, and insights. And thank you for reading!