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Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Oct 13 2013

How to fix the achievement gap (part 1 of several)

I just made it to October break in my second year.  I thought about saving these ideas up for a final wrap-up at the end of my TFA experience, but I figured, “What the hell!”  Let me provide a little background for my opinions.  That way, Gary What’s-His-Name will know what he’s dealing with if he decides to write a critique.

I’m not your typical TFA-er.  I’m 54.  I spent 11 years in the military as an intelligence gatherer and 15 years in the private sector as a computer systems analyst/network administrator.  I’m fluent in French and still somewhat proficient in German.  Along the way, I took a two-year diversion as a French teacher in a lily-white private school in rural Virginia.  I spent years as a conservative Republican, but have since drifted leftward to a place where I find myself outside any identifiable political affiliation.  I’m also a Mormon.  I converted to the religion 35 years ago and have held leadership positions in the local communities where I live.  I’m an idealist who has been beaten up by life a whole lot, and still retained a healthy does of idealism.

I’m not writing this article or the subsequent ones with any sequence in mind.  I’m just doing this in a stream-of-consciousness kind of way.  I’m not looking to make waves, make any significant declarations, or define a new path for educational reform.  Truthfully, I think education will reform once the present system crashes.  It will go back to what it was in colonial times.

Even before getting into TFA, I was interested in how different nations achieve different results in their education systems.  Having lived in France and Germany for several years each, I am acquainted somewhat with their systems.  In France, high school kids face the pressure of “le Bac.”  That’s the Baccalaureate examination students take to get into college.  It is the focus of a college-bound teen’s life.  Education is cheap for those who pass it.  The state pays most of the bills.  Those who don’t pass the test end up going into trades or end up unemployed.

For that reason, students spend up to two years studying to pass the test.  The teens I knew in France were stressed and serious.  They were not goofing around like our high school kids.  The French teens knew their lives depended on that test.  They were invested, big time.  France produces a lot of good scientists, writers, you name it.

On the other hand, the French don’t do a good job assimilating immigrants.  They have a lot of social unrest because of their unwise immigration policies and systemic racism that is still a part of the baseline French culture.  Do their education policies exacerbate this problem?  More than likely.  They are afraid that fixing the problem of assimilating immigrants will undermine or destroy French culture.  That would be a great loss indeed!  The problem they face in education is getting immigrants into the existing system of opportunity in an essentially socialist system without losing that which is essentially French.

Germans do a great job integrating the education system with their trade unions.  Through early testing, they identify who is college material and who isn’t and then they assign kids into tracks that will take them to college or a trade.  Of course, for late-bloomers, that’s tough.  A kid who doesn’t hit his stride until after that process is complete will end up in a career track he doesn’t want.  Again, like the French, most German students are pretty serious.  German society values conformity and obedience.  It’s drilled into the kids from birth.  I watched a bunch of Germans at an intersection with a broken Walk/Don’t Walk sign during a thunderstorm.  It was pouring rain down in buckets, but they would not cross the street because it would be considered anti-social to do so.  Breaking the rules is not something Germans do easily.  I can’t imagine German students ever acting in the same anarchic manner as my students.

In Japan and Russia, education is rigorous, but it is also used to deconstruct individuals and get them to conform to society’s needs.  Personal humiliation is part of that breaking-down process.  I have known people who grew up in those countries and heard their stories about how regimented and intolerant those education systems are.  There are strong social controls enforced by the state.  Just ask the lead singer of the band “Pussy Riot.”

Could the states in the USA adopt systems the provided a government-paid-for college education to those who qualified academically, without student loans, based purely on merit?  We could, but the inequities in our society would become readily apparent.  Children from “achievement-gap schools” would be left out in large measure.

We have societal problems that aren’t inherent in Europe.  The whole history of slavery causes a problem that has to be remedied through reparations, but never will be.  The reason I say this is based on the fact that we have one major political party that is controlled by an unholy alliance of the religious right and the super-rich.  (God and Mammon.)  In those south-of-the-border countries where Catholicism was the dominant religion, slavery came to a different end.  Popes in the colonial period ensured that the message got through that Africans had souls.  Manumission was common.  Intermarriage between colonial Spaniards (or Portuguese)  and former slaves occurred with regularity.  The different mindset promoted a normalization.  The colonized absorbed the colonizers.  Along with the Church, there were strong institutions that helped in that process.

In the USA, slavery took on a significant brutality that was justified by evangelical interpretations of the Bible.  The Protestant ethic institutionalized racism and gave it a perceived moral legitimacy.  Having rejected institutions like the Papacy, Protestant religionists in America also enjoyed freedom from strong institutions, like the Crown.  The lack of a hierarchical social structure or classes led to the down-channeling of power to independent states and communities.  This accumulation of power in the states and communities led to all sorts of abuses: Jim Crow, annihilation of the Indian Ghost Dance Movement, extermination orders against Mormons in Missouri, you name it.

That power struggle goes on today.  Without nationalizing education, each state retains power to control content and methods of education with no check on quality control.  Common Core seeks to fix that, but there is growing resistance from the political right on this.  There is a danger; however, inherent in creating a national system of education.  It’s impossible to educate without transmitting values and culture.  Unlike the nations of Europe, the United States is not one culture.  We have many.  Which one gets emphasized in nationalized education?  The dominant culture could easily crush the minority ones.  Who is to say which culture becomes dominant?  As usual, it would be those with the power, money, and guns.  That doesn’t sound good to me.

What do I see happening?  I foresee that the present unworkable system will collapse, probably due to a funding crisis from a dollar devaluation.  That won’t fix the problem; it will only re-set it.   Education will revert back to what it was in the colonial system.  Schools will be private for the most part.  State-provided public education will maybe extend up to the sixth grade.  Beyond that, it would be a paid system with some scholarships, fellowships, etc.  The apprenticeship will come back in vogue.  Students will have to commit a certain number of years to work with a master before they can become journeymen.

Would a reset like that offer opportunities for the “achievement gap kids?”  Counterintuitively, it just might.  There would be a great deal of social leveling that takes place following a dollar-crash scenario.  At this point, I don’t buy it that ever kid needs to go to college.  I have seventh graders who are already such discipline problems that they need to be sent out into real life to become “educated” by life’s demands.  In a post-crash system, they would learn to read and write up to a sixth grade level and then get their wish–to join the real world.  After a few years, I’ll bet that they would be willing to pay to get more education to improve their opportunities.  At that point a free-market will devise solutions that might actually serve those in lower-income brackets as opposed to the current system of state-supported inflation of tuition.

More to come…


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YOTFAO BACTAG = You only teach for America once, but always challenge the achievement gap.

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