Dealing with Dysfunction: A Review of “What It Is Like to Teach in Failing Schools,” Part 2

Nelson Rosit

Part 1 of “Dealing with Dysfunction”

Another of Mr. Teacher’s idiosyncrasies is his view on race. Although he does not explicitly identify his ethnicity, apparently he is a White man. And despite having plenty of real-world experience dealing with Blacks and Browns he does not address race as a biological concept. When discussing the Program in International Student Assessment (PISA) that compares student academic achievement across national borders the author notes that “American educators produce similar outcomes as Finland and Korea when looking only at White and Asian students” (99). Okay, that is to be expected. But then he goes on to state that the PISA “results help to show that biology is not the leading or most significant cause for assessment differences between subgroups (eduspeak for races) because largely non-white United States Hispanics significantly outscore biologically ‘White’ Uruguayans” (101).

The above is pretty slim evidence to base a conclusion regarding the role of race in educational achievement. A closer look shows that AT’s comparison is not apt. While Uruguay is 88 percent White, that is within a Latin American context. In addition, Uruguay has a far smaller per capita income than the US, and spends a significant smaller percent of its GDP on education.[1] As a result the South American country has a shorter school day, larger class sizes, and more basic educational facilities.

Strangely, later in the book the author gives evidence that race is a significant factor in educational outcomes.

Black Canadians are just 2.5 percent of the Canadian population. Black Canadian students in Toronto — the largest concentration of Blacks in any Canadian location — have a dropout rate of 40 percent — a much higher dropout rate than their Canadian peers. There is also a large scholastic achievement gap between Black Canadians and other Canadians (212).

In addition, AT notes that Black Canadian students have disproportionately high rates of absenteeism, suspension, and expulsion. So here you have two different countries with two different educational systems with the same racial disparities. This seem to be more convincing than the author’s Uruguay example. Mr. Teacher describes himself as an Orthodox Christian, and he affirms “God’s sovereign Will in human affairs” (213). He might not believe in biological evolution, which could explain his ambivalence on race.

Yet another incongruence (yes, I know what Emerson wrote about consistency) is Mr. Teacher’s strong support for neighborhood schools controlled and staffed by people from the community. So here is a White man teaching at a school that is 97 percent non-White located a long commute from his home. It would seem that he is not living the principles he advocates.

While expounding on the need for neighborhood schools AT asks, “Why don’t we let local communities decide how to run their own schools?” (100). While I completely agree with the author that each ethnic group should be responsible for teaching their own children, I can think of several reasons why Big Ed might object: diversity and inclusion, at least in theory, are core values that cannot be compromised; neighborhood schools, controlled and staffed by local people, might extend and reinforce self-segregation, or as some call it racial isolation; there is the question of competency. If minority communities had autonomy in administration and finance would that really be expected to improve educational outcomes? Remember, the establishment is obsessed with closing the racial achievement gap. And finally, would community autonomy be letting Whitey off the hook for poor school performance?  Perish the thought!

As mentioned, AT has disdain for most educational experts. One such authority the author sharply criticizes is Arne Duncan. Before becoming Secretary of Education (2009–2016), Duncan was Superintendent of Chicago Public Schools (2001–2009). Mr. Teacher notes that Secretary Duncan is a product of private schools and sent his own children to private schools. As Chicago superintendent he closed approximately 100 neighborhood schools in an effort to improve educational outcomes. There were strenuous objections by parents, teachers, and community groups, and the school system has seen little, if any, progress.

One big stumbling block to improvement is school discipline. Student behavior has been identified as the number one problem in failing schools. Disruptive behavior can have a pervasive impact on the whole educational process. The disruptive student is not learning, and he or she is probably preventing classmates from learning as well. More time spent on classroom management means less time for teaching. Mr. Teacher believes Black-staffed and -administrated schools would do a better job of disciplining Black students. “Experts never recommend strict discipline for minority schools. This is precisely what Black teachers want for Black students” (146).

Perhaps AT is right, but it seems to me that Black leadership is often reluctant to hold their community to the same standards of behavior as the larger society. They and their allies would rather change standards than conform to existing ones. Black leaders complain about the school-to-prison pipeline. The misbehavior without consequences in middle school that the author describes could be the genesis of this phenomenon. If students in early adolescence learn they can disobey rules with impunity, they will bring those lessons with them to their late teens and adulthood.

The inability of the author to come to grips with the race issue leads Mr. Teacher to indulge in leftist-are-the-real-racists thinking. “Let’s deal with [problems] by building on local people who give a damn. Let’s do it by fighting against the racist rule of the so-called policy experts” (129).  When White educational experts “implement top-down, mandatory regulations and policies based on performance of schools in Finland, Korea and other countries, . . . it is unabashed racism — pure and simple” (145). Actually, it is not so simple.

For three generations Whites have been taught that all ethnic groups are basically the same. Observable differences are either insignificant physical traits or malleable cultural characteristics. From this premise it might be assumed by those on the liberal left that pedagogical practices that work with well-behaved, intelligent Finnish or Korean students could succeed with Black students in the inner cities of America. The inclusive egalitarian ideology that drives educational policy requires race denial and self-deception, resulting in yet more futile programs for educational uplift. Then there are others on the left — critical theorists and Trotskyites — who are cynical realists. Their main interest in non-Whites is as agents to undermine Western civilization and the people who created it. I suppose one could call such people racists — anti-White racists.

The author goes on and reiterates the need for local control of education. “If Black people are truly human, if they really do matter, give them what they, and all people in the world, desire: sovereignty” (149). This reviewer questions how much autonomy Blacks really want, but I certainly support ethnic autonomy. Is this the backdoor for AT to advocate for White separatism and independence?

In any case, large historical forces are at work. The establishment is beginning to understand that identity politics is a double-edged sword. European Americans are becoming a smaller percent of the population, and other ethnicities vigorously practice group advocacy. Whites too are developing an identity apart from generic American, and will increasingly work for their explicit ethnic interests.

One view of public education is the community’s investment in their youth. While not every investment is going to pay a dividend, the community should expect a high return for their expenditures. Neo-Marxist Big Ed wants to allocate resources, especially in K–12, to each according to his need. This is an issue that AT just alludes to in passing. The highest expenditures are directed toward students with limitations that make them unlikely to ever significantly contribute to the commonweal. A concern is that more meritocratic societies, such as China, will gain a competitive advantage in the future, but of course such a concern is far from the focus of the people who run Big Ed.

In the final chapter, “Towards a Solution,” the author outlines some educational reforms he would like to see implemented. Veteran teachers should have more say in school policy, and there should be zero tolerance for violent or extremely disrespectful behavior as well as higher pay, more planning time; staffing and curriculum should be controlled at the local level. “[Schools] do not need an army of testing officials, policymakers, and bureaucrats who teach no one” (234).

The AT’s advice to future teachers — stay away from “favela schools.”[2] He describes “modern ghetto society in America” as violent, narcissistic, and materialistic, a culture where people “do not appreciate the vast amount of work it takes to be successful” (235).

Back when I was in grad school there was a young woman, an undergrad, who worked in the department’s office. Blonde, a bit on the heavy side, she was a sweet girl from a small Midwestern town. Toward the end of her senior year she mentioned that she had been accepted into the new Teach for America program that sends idealistic new graduates to teach in poverty-ridden schools. I remember telling her in my mind: if you get into the wrong school, those kids are going to chew you up and spit you out. I didn’t say anything. I didn’t know her very well, and didn’t want to be negative. But if I had had AT’s book I would have surreptitiously slipped her my copy.

Mr. Teacher seems to be an intelligent, hardworking, conscientious individual who found himself in an impossible, untenable position. His lawyer told him to find a new job, his wife insisted he get a new job. I certainly hope he found a new job, saved his marriage and his sanity, and is now in a position where his talents can serve himself and his community.

[1] While almost 88% of Uruguayans self-identify as White, Uruguay’s GDP per capita is $21,330 compared to the US $56,100. Uruguay spends 4.4% of GDP on education compared to 5.5% for the US.
[2] I was unfamiliar with this term, and the author does not define it. A Google search revealed that “favela” means slum in Portuguese.

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