Mar 31, 2013

The Myth of Failing Schools and the Impact of Socio-Economic Privilege

"Schools are killing creativity!"     

 "The only thing schools teach is how to be obedient employees."   

 "We should teach kids to trust their intuition instead of teaching them to obey." 

These are all things I've seen tweeted or posted on blogs in the past week. And each time I read a comment like that I get upset. You may wonder, "WHY? It's true! We are training kids to respond to bells, to sit and be respectful. Our factory model of education hasn't changed even though our society has!" 

We are bombarded with messages about failing schools and how to fix them, falling rankings in test scores, and the loss of U.S. ability to compete in the global marketplace. But all of those negative messages don't tell the whole story of what goes on in schools. 

There are two big reasons why I get upset by comments like those I've seen on Twitter and in blog comments recently: first, they are blanket statements meant to characterize all schools; and second, they are extremely privileged statements.

Read on to see what I mean...

Like any stereotype--aiming a blanket statement at an entire group of people who share the same religion, ethnicity, race, sexual preference, or gender--stereotypes about public schools HURT. There are so many good schools out there! Check out this "failing" school's amazing success at getting kids motivated to learn, engaging them in their community, and helping them DREAM BIG:

UNDERDOGS- The Story of a Successful Public School from Think Ten Media Group on Vimeo.

Yes, the school in the video is focusing on test scores; but is that killing their creativity? When kids sit and dream about the president visiting their school--is that just blind obedience? The fact is that the assessments the kids take are used as tools to help teachers figure out how to teach them better. Many of the kids in the video started out reading far below grade level, and it was the tests that let teachers know that they needed to do more intensive teaching to help them. It is the assessments that let teachers know when they've been making progress. And that progress can't be made without assessing students regularly to see what they are learning.

If you think that all schools are killing creativity, that all schools teach only how to be blindly obedient workers, then you are making a hurtful, stereotypical statement. You hurt not only the creative students who are successful every day in public schools, but you also hurt those of us who work in public education. Many students and teachers work as partners in the educational process, creatively working together each day toward the goal of learning together. You do an extreme disservice to the thousands of teachers and administrators who put students first each and every day, and to the hundreds of thousands of students who thrive in public schools.

Not only are statements assuming that, "all schools kill creativity," stereotypical, they are also extremely privilegedI often read and hear people complaining about school policies that reward behaviors such as being respectful, responsible, and showing good citizenship. I often hear people complaining that programs like PBIS discourage individuality, kill creativity, and only teach obedience. I believe that most of those complaints come from people who have socioeconomic privilege.

When you grow up with one or two parents who have regular, steady jobs, are able to provide food, shelter and clothing for you, and have a college education--you probably know some things about how mainstream society works. You know that it is considered respectful (to your friends, your boss, your teacher) if you show up on time to appointments. You know that yelling at people in a public place is probably not going to be considered acceptable behavior. You know that it is considered rude to talk about sex in public, that cursing is considered crass, that certain clothing is appropriate in certain situations. When you grow up in an economically stable household with educated parents, you probably have regular check-ups and know about personal hygiene. You are most likely exposed to books before entering kindergarten, and have someone who either reads to you or lets you watch some preschool educational programs on TV that help you learn letter and number identification. You probably know what it's like to have privacy in your  own home, and can find a space to be alone. You most likely feel  hungry, but don't have to wait a full day or more for a meal. You probably learn at a young age that stealing is wrong, that drugs and alcohol are harmful, and that eating too much junk food isn't healthy.

I grew up in a middle class household with two working, college-educated parents. I learned all of that and more. But there are many, many kids who don't grow up with any of that.

I have spent my 15-year teaching career working with kids who don't have the privileges I had growing up. Do I want my students to think creatively? YES! But to many kids in poverty, the things they think creatively about are how to get their next meal, where to get clothes that fit, and how to make money to support their families----fast.  Their intuition tells them that stealing gets them food now. Their instincts tell them that a big chain store has plenty of money already and won't miss a couple of pairs of blue jeans. They creatively look for ways to sneak out of stores with items that will help their families without getting caught.

One of my current students is 16 years old and lives in a 2-parent household. Less than two years ago, the family lived in Chicago. They lived in a part of the city that was no place to raise a family--lots of gun violence and gang activity. They didn't want to stay there, so they moved to Iowa. His parents have had difficulty getting and maintaining jobs, so they have moved around--from apartment, to house, to pay-by-the-day motel--just to keep the family sheltered. At times, my student has lived with as many as 8 other people in a one-bedroom space. He describes an environment where neighbors are not violent (like in Chicago) but are drug users, alcoholics, and sexually active in public. His "normal" does not include any of what was normal for me growing up: a knowledge of language that is appropriate, what it means to be respectful, what it looks like to be polite.

When he first moved here, he learned quickly about some things that are unacceptable in our area. He and his brother saw so many houses with stuff that they'd never had before; they were shocked. They had almost nothing--very little food, very little clothing, and a very small apartment for their large family. They thought about how people with big houses had so much, and could probably make it just fine with fewer things. They wanted to help their family. Intuition told them that it is their responsibility to help feed their family. Following their instincts, they robbed a house. Then they got caught, and were sentenced to several months in juvenile detention. As a result of that whole experience, my student now knows that thinking creatively about how to get new clothes and food for his family is not the best way to think if he wants to stay free. His choice had a consequence. And I am proud to say that at school we are doing our best to kill the kind of creative thinking he was doing when he first moved to Iowa...

See, our society requires some obedience. It requires us to follow certain laws that keep us safe. It requires us to pay our own way, to buy our own food, clothing, and shelter. The only way to pay our own way is to get a job. The only way to get and keep a job is to know what it looks like to be responsible, and respectful. A lot of kids don't learn that at home anymore. And we can lament that fact, we can complain about parents who don't do a good job of teaching their kids, we can blame the economy or the president or any number of other people. But blaming doesn't change the fact that we have lots of kids in schools who aren't growing up with the privilege of knowing how mainstream society works. Many schools have decided that complaining doesn't do any good--we need to teach. 

So we teach--about the importance of being on time, about not cursing, about pulling up your pants, about not being on your cell phone when someone is trying to have a conversation with you, about not calling people offensive names. We look for ways to reward students who know how to communicate effectively, to accept feedback, to show up on time. We work on skills that we know are necessary for students to have in the workplace--whether they are fast-food workers or corporate CEOs.

When we don't work on these skills with students who live in poverty, we are continuing the cycle of poverty. When we neglect to share what we have learned through our privilege, we are acting as oppressors. Refusing to share our knowledge of what it takes to be successful in the U.S.  is an attempt to maintain our privilege.

Parents or community members who are offended that schools spend time sharing knowledge that comes from privilege may not realize that they are helping to continue the cycle of poverty--but they are. This document from the U.S. Census Bureau discusses child poverty in depth. I encourage you to read through it and see the startling numbers, to think about what they mean. Children in poverty are less likely to be successful in school, less likely to hold regular jobs, more likely to be incarcerated. We need to help kids learn what it will take to be successful. While creative thinking, following intuition, and challenging authority are all important skills that have revolutionized our country, we need to make sure that all children understand that there are also some basic behaviors that we must learn to keep society running smoothly. We can't drive whatever speed we want to, show up to work whenever we feel like it, curse at patrons, or take things that don't belong to us. And we cannot assume that all kids come to school knowing what those of us who grew up with privilege know.

Most schools that focus on behavioral supports are not trying to create automatons who blindly follow directions. They are trying to level the playing field. They are trying to give many students who live in poverty access to the kinds of knowledge that privileged students have access to. Increasingly, our schools are filled with kids who need help learning all sorts of basic skills--not just reading, writing, and math, but also appropriate behavior. Is there really something wrong with teaching all of that?


  1. Jen, you do such a great job of shining a light on these complex issues! I had never thought of being exposed to these sort of things at home as "privilege" but you are absolutely right. Just last night I was out to dinner with my sister and we were talking about how hard it is for someone who has not been brought up with certain resources - through no fault of their own - to be successful in the conventional sense. Even if a teenager WANTS to do well and has dreams of college, marriage, etc., if that person has not been given the basic building blocks they need in the early years it is a huge uphill battle. But then as a society we are so quick to blame the individual.

    I read your post while I was waiting for my 6 year old to finish his bath and I felt compelled to tell him just how LUCKY he is - lucky to have a big bathtub to play in, a warm house to live in, a kitchen full of food, a family who loves him and looks out for him, teachers who are invested him helping him learn. And, for kids, it really is luck of the draw, which is what is so sad.

  2. Ellie, thanks so much for reading and commenting! I think a lot of people take for granted that luckiness that you pointed out to your son in his bath. And even if they realize that they are lucky in comparison to people in other countries, they don't realize that poverty exists right here in our own country--sometimes in our own towns. I appreciate you taking the time to talk to your son about it, and that you and your sister recognize the fact that not everyone is given the same opportunities. While writing I also started thinking about race and remembering Trayvon Martin. It's sad, but even if you take socio-economic privilege out of the equation, we still have to teach our children of color to be more respectful, responsible, and obedient than many white children need to be--just to keep them safe. If Forrest Whitaker can be harassed by police, what chance does any black man have who isn't as successful? It's a lot to think about...

  3. Yep - that is another good point, and one that was not even on my radar screen until I became a mom to children of color. These are phenomena that so easily stay out of sight for many people, because without the personal, up-close view of what poverty or racism looks like, it is hard to really grasp how insidious it is. I hope that is part of the role that blogs can serve - shedding light on these issues!


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