Saturday, November 26, 2016

About Eliot

Once, after class, I mentioned to my high school Global Studies teacher that I wanted to grow up to be a high school social studies teacher. He laughed in my face. "You will never in your life" he bellowed "be a social studies teacher. That's ridiculous and hilarious". His laughter persisted until I turned to leave and it continued until I had completely left the room. 

While the incident did leave an impression on me, it didn't exactly leave me with scars either. My friends and I were all poor kids living in a good suburban school district and we had long since become accustomed to not being welcomed by the adults with open arms. Eliot's (I'll only use his first name here) laughter was chalked up as just one of the things you deal with under certain circumstances. This is especially true for me because I a wise-ass when I was a kid and had no desire of being liked by adults.  My mother scrimped and saved and sacrificed most of her life just to keep me in that district and back then if you stepped too far out of line, they just find a way to put you in a special ed room. (And Special Ed wasn't \s back then what it is today).  So we all just took sucked it up. Lots of us were poor back in the 80's so I had company.

School districts in the suburbs are based solely on geography. If you can afford to live in a good geographic locality, then you can attend a school in a good district. If you can't afford to live there, then your education is not as good. That's why on the surface of things, Betsy Devos' school choice plan, whatever plan is put forth, may look pretty good for parents stuck in bad school districts.

Choice. You can choose to leave your district. Think about how good that sounds to a student who is in an unsuccessful school district.

I guess that's a nice way of acknowledging the obvious truism that, in American schools, there are "haves" and "have nots". Most times they're in different districts. But sometimes, as in my case, they're in the same. The "haves" in my school district were all the children of middle and upper middle class white people. The "have nots", and there were many included a bunch of poor white kids strong Dominican-American community. A close neighboring district was almost entirely poor.

While the "have not" districts are largely ignored, the sense of community among the "haves" districts is strong. That same sense is within the mixed districts. The "haves" in my district had a strong sense of community and "have nots" were, well, largely ignored.

I have zero hard feelings toward Elitot. I grew up to be a social studies teacher and have a few  plaques and certificates on my wall to show for it so, even today, I'm good. But Eliot was a very popular teacher in my high school; among the haves.

He actively treated the "have nots" pretty bad. He once told a valedictorian, a have not from a broken home living in an apartment with her mother, that she really shouldn't be the valedictorian, because  another girl had worked harder and required no extra help during her time in high school. He openly wondered how he could remove certain kids from his class on Genocides (while naming them as they were in the room) and read aloud the list of names of students he felt would pass one of the two state exams offered for the class while looking the others in the eye.. The "haves" thought nothing of this. The "have nots" were the only ones who noticed.

These are true stories about Eliot. It's just the kind of guy he was. My district was filled with them. Genial, friendly, great educators who could just give a shit less about you if you weren't on the right wrung of the socio-econmic ladder.

Damn. If I had a choice, I would have escaped my district!

 I scrolled through Eliot's  friends list on Facebook a while back. Tons of former students. All haves from the community. Not one have not. Not one. Not one poor kid from around my way. It's nice that teachers care. It would be nice if they cared about all the students.

Good people in my former district. Good colleagues now, I'm sure. But good people are often not up to this task. Good people can often teach yet still shouldn't be teachers. In that environment, who's to say the student shouldn't have a choice? No one is going to tell me that the concerns of the students mean something less just because someone doesn't want to blame a school district that could, honestly, care less about some of its students. No one is going to tell me that parents who exercise the choice that may be coming is wrong for feeling let down by their neighborhood school or district. I think everyone agrees we could all be doing a better job.

I checked the accountability stats for my old district. Over 95% graduation rate, with a 49% grad rate for students with disabilities (SWDs) 36% for ELLs and (if I read correctly) less than 30% for African-American students. New dialogue, new century but still the same old suburban school district.

Say what you want about these choice people. They're misguided. They're evil. They have chosen the wrong targets and have offered the wrong solutions. They will destroy public schools.

 But the simple fact is that the whole choice movement has been wrought because of our collective failure of the have nots. The classroom teacher, who has no real power in virtually all schools, should not be in this equation to the extent others should but the teacher still is.

And while education isn't the place where we failed them, the truth is we have also failed them in their education. It's alright to say that. It's ok to acknowledge that. This is but one reason why the choice movement holds the "have nots" on its mantlepiece.

And while, for my current friends, rejecting the movement is not -not by any means- a rejection of the have-nots, I worry that my friends are enabling, by sheer accident, a process that helps to perpetuate the problem. We can't teach to just some of our students.

In the town where I grew up, Eliot is loved. Eliot is revered. Eliot is admired and Eliot is very much respected. But, you see,  Eliot is part of the problem. I feel a touch of blame toward folks like Eliot just as I blame the Evas and choice advocates of the world for any pain to public schools that the choice movement may bring.

Because, of course, choice isn't choice for the tens of thousands of students who did not get in or who were pushed out of a charter school. Choice will not be choice for the 1000th voucher student who applied to a private school or neighborhood district with only 50 open seats.  But the myth is sold to parents and students who were in classes taught by people like Eliot; to parents and students who would like the "have nots" in education to have equity and a real opportunity after high school.  And that myth looks pretty good.


  1. ...tip of the iceberg;

    From the UCLA study:
    New York has the most segregated schools in the country: in 2009, black and Latino students in the state had the highest concentration in intensely-segregated public schools (less than 10% white enrollment), the lowest exposure to white students, and the
    most uneven distribution with white students across schools.1 Heavily impacting these state rankings is New York City, home to the largest and one of the most segregated public school systems in the nation.

    Manhattan U.S. Attorney Sues New York City Department Of Education For Discrimination And Retaliation:

    In a release, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said it was "nearly unthinkable that, in this day and age, one of the largest and most diverse school districts in the United States would allow racial discrimination and retaliation to flourish."

    How many NYC high schools are represented by 99% minority students but may have only 1 or 2 minority teachers at the school?

    1. I don't think the idea of vouchers for poorer folks (assigned to failing public schools) to utilize while applying to non-failing private/charter schools really strikes a negative chord in America today. As a matter of fact it is common sense and popular.

      A clever union leader would address/support vouchers of that sort and work to find public and common ground with the new education nominee on the issue. Heck, they could even take turns publicly slamming Common Core.

      But a clever teachers union leader would not have attacked the nominee right out of the gate. And thereby built popular support for the nominee while poisoning the well for a productive future relationship.

    2. 4:06,
      Check the ATR pool. In the Bronx we are overwhelmingly Black, Hispanic, and/or middle aged. I've taught for 25 years. All the new teachers brought in by Bloomberg were young and White. Most of them are gone already. You want minority teachers scream to put us back in the classroom.

  2. Thanks for telling it like it is. Same story in my small city school-even today.