Educational Inequality

I’m teaching Basic Writing this semester for the first time since 1998, and as part of my work, I am sitting in on a practicum focused both on teaching this course this semester and on BW scholarship. I’m finding this a valuable experience for two reasons. First, we are all so busy that it is hard to take time to share ideas, insights, and concerns with our teaching colleagues. Sure, we might have a brief conversation in the hall or while standing at the copier, but sustained conversation is rare. This practicum is an opportunity for that kind of conversation. Second, I was immersed in BW teaching and scholarship during my studies at CSU, Chico in the 1980s, but I haven’t really kept up as I found interest and took courses in other areas in graduate school. So this practicum has prompted me to read recent scholarship in BW. These are both good things.

Also, as a participant in the practicum, I try to write weekly “journal” responses to the readers we’ve been assigned. Recently my responses have, perhaps, gone a bit astray of the texts to which I am responding. But the issues faced by BW students and teachers of BW are complex, and the bigger picture must always be considered: public education in America. For instance, here’s my response from last week.

Mike Rose’s “Remediation at a Crossroads” and Justin Hudson’s “The Brick Tower” both address one of my ongoing concerns about education in the US: Inequality. Rose ends “Remediation at a Crossroads” by noting that America’s economic model of education “is dangerous for without a civic and moral core, it could easily lead to snazzy 21st century versions of an old and shameful pattern in American education: working-class people get a functional education, skills-and-drills geared toward lower level work” (30). Rose is right, but I fear the problem is even greater. With “failing” schools and draconian budget cuts for education, fewer and fewer Americans even have access to what once was one of America’s shining accomplishments: a good public education.

education-is-a-rightJustin Hudson addresses his feeling of guilt because he and his classmates “received an outstanding education at no charge based solely on [their] performance on a test [they] took when [they] were eleven-year olds or four-year olds,” and his is a powerful acknowledgment of inequality, but with fewer and fewer students going into education, with a majority of new teachers leaving the profession in their first five years, and with districts even in middle class neighborhood that can’t afford to hire teachers I fear the total collapse of public education in America.

When Hudson writes “I hope that a quality education will not be a privilege for the few in this country,” I think both of the students in New York and elsewhere who never had and never will have a chance to attend Hunter or a school like it, and of the students in Alabama, Texas, Kansas and elsewhere who are learning that America was founded on Christian values, that America is and always has been the greatest nation on earth, and that Moses was a major influence on America’s founding. We now have textbooks in Texas, and so elsewhere because textbook publishers look at the bottom line and textbooks written for Texas can influence the content of classroom materials available elsewhere around the country students, that claim state’s rights and sectionalism rather than slavery were the reasons for the Civil War; that Joseph McCarthy’s blacklists of Americans were justified because communists had infiltrated the government during the Cold War; and that the Crusades were a justified reaction to 400 years of Islamic oppression.

I set out to write about economic inequality and education and how Mike Rose’s Lives on the Boundary profoundly shaped my thinking about teaching, and ended up on a rant. That was not my intention, but when the schools in Gilbert and Mesa where my husband, who is certified in secondary business and technology, substitutes are begging him to fill their long-term science teacher position and the students he meets ask “how long are you going to be here because we’ve been getting a different teacher everyday,” I fall into despair. I can only begin to imagine the problems school in low-income neighbors and economically strapped major cities face when middle class kids in Arizona are begging a semi-retired man with no science background to stick around to teach them for more than one day. When middle class kids can’t get a decent education, there is likely no chance those of lower economic status will get anything at all.

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