Politics as Usual

Every occupation is a performance. Unless you are doing something you have been programmed innately to do, and even when you are, you have to put your “job” face on. I have not perfected my “job” face because the last three jobs I’ve held were teaching engagements with nonprofit educational programs. Besides the loose atmosphere, jeans-and-sneakers dress code, and overall youthfulness of staff, nothing has ever been light about the mission. In my three years being an educator specific to nonprofits, I’ve been informed by my own experiences as a product of that machine. Our electoral-commercial construct provides the bureaucratic model (for better or worse) for the average charitable organization. Donors give money based on the promise of success, executives then channel the money into resources, subsidies like scholarships, and staff. But, in some cases, risk management and accountability are absent from the equation. As much as I’d like to augment the work of benevolent programs, their methods are often faulty and, at worst, built for failure. What makes them run? Who has an interest in the education system and its improvement? There’s money in the ‘hood and in failing schools. Attempting to discuss and chronicle the answers to these questions with friends and family members has opened doorways for debate.

Think It Over

My education was sponsored, in part, by the highly organized nonprofit vehicle that I mentioned in my previous post: Prep for Prep. After a gamut of tests, nerdy ten-year-olds from New York City amble to Trinity School on 96th Street for summer classes, year-long preparation for independent school admission. We saddle ourselves with over-sized book sacks to make trips uptown. Wonderment nudges us to enter a new frontier but, corporate sponsorship pays for our teachers, researchers, administrators, counseling staff and materials. As I understand it, Prep for Prep works like this:

1. Recruiters find students from the New York City area with exceptional marks on standardized exams by canvassing school buildings in each county. They then visit those schools, inviting parents and students to test into the program.

2. Three tests follow. Two are for cognitive ability, basic language skills and quantitative stuff. One is for something less definable, so I’ll deem it an “I.Q. test.” Many of those measures are unscientific, malleable and under constant scrutiny but, they spend at least three hours with students, using a combination of methods. Speaking from personal accounts, I recall some spatial reasoning questions, general knowledge, pattern-tracing, quick-thinking motor skills and critical reading.

3. After tests are completed, students receive an admission letter and an invitation to enroll. The course work spans fourteen months, four summer months split over two years and two school-year terms. During that time we took courses offered by traditional private schools from literature to biology to history.

4. Students are chosen for matching schools after visiting four or five in New York that suit them socially and academically. The next full school year begins the private instruction.

Time to Take Affirmative Action

Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity are meant to convey the same idea but, over time, the former has drawn criticism from both sides of the aisle. Progressives often question whether including unrepresented folks in the world of steeped opportunities will help or merely create dependence. Conservatives, waving the flag of reverse discrimination, say that our problem won’t be healed by practicing more favoritism. Even when I knew I was a beneficiary of affirmative action policy, I had serious reservations about looking at it that way. For instance, Prep for Prep’s rigorous testing and placement bases the integration process mostly on merit, while schools choose to adjust financial requirements for students on a case by case basis. So the Pluck-and-Place method doesn’t necessarily apply as it does in some other recruitment programs. Programs falter, in my estimation, when they blame imbalance on a bare minimum of social factors (i.e. health, wealth, food quality, school) instead of grasping the complex nature of oppression.

Gary Simons, founder of Prep for Prep and advocate for education reform, is an idealist in this sense. He provided the impetus for scholars to explore a once-denied tier of elitist society with hard work and resolve as the only caveat. He even compiled a retrospective nonfiction novel attributing the stories that arose from this promise titled Be The Dream. However, his foresight about the difficulties of cross-cultural pollination was apprehensive at best. Other than tedious (mandatory) leadership courses and group discussion periods, I was not prepared to be thrown into the fire. A sharpened intellect and a hardened heart are required traits of a double-living, double-talking Black student in private school. My trials notwithstanding, I see the same blurred vision problem affecting current programs. Perhaps when the American Dream of Simons’ book confronts the American Reality, the dreamers alone must mitigate their differences.

So, there’s a gap between the vision and the outcomes. I fall somewhere in that gap — the one education sociologists call “the achievement gap.” Rather than address what created the gap, we often forge a path through this valley, disregarding the harmful, mendacious objective that fuels this futile drive: equality. I can’t help but think that I’ve bought into the same flawed logic.

Stopgap Solutions

The current thinking about improving education mandates either early intervention involving youthful instructors whose enthusiasm can curb the existing damage, or high school-to-college preparation for students in depressed areas. Early intervention programs like Teach for America seem ideal for college graduates looking for a starter career in a widening field. Many applicants for its nationwide search come from our best universities. The training process imbues employees with the rhetoric of hope but, there is a sneaky subtext as well. Teach for America (and its Clinton-era cousin Americorps) provides a tuition reimbursement incentive after members pledge two years of service. On the surface, this seems like an amazing way to attract qualified teachers, but signing a year-long employment contract invites teachers to leave as soon as the going gets rough. There is no stipulation attached to the receipt of scholarship funds except the brief tenure with a school system. Indeed, for a young teacher with career options in flux, flight seems the likely solution after navigating the treacherous waters of bureaucracy, low expectations and changing federal policy. TFA refills its pool easily, but the schools where infrastructure has long suffered are left with more questions than answers. Moreover, established teachers and administrators greet TFA teachers with antagonism and suspicion knowing they’ll soon be gone. Some of the alumni will undoubtedly devote entire careers to education though, I suspect, the vast majority will avoid it like the plague.

High Turnover

An ailing school system cannot be helped by a state of unending change. Unfortunately, Teach for America, Americorps, and others encourage turnover through meager salaries and shaky support networks for teachers struggling to adapt to the urban environment. New York City’s Teaching Fellows program has the same issue. The Village Voice documented those challenges in a piece last year. I never opted to teach with a Dangerous Minds style happy ending in mind. Those preconceptions contribute to the high rate of turnover among middle class teachers in the urban environment. Not to mention, very few have experienced Black culture, poor culture or any cultures outside of their own. Culture clash moves us to more real paradigms of the befuddled White teacher in the Black classroom. Prezbo, one of The Wire’s peripheral characters, encounters frustration at every turn when he tries his frail hand at teaching in one of Baltimore’s unforgiving middle schools. So-called small victories are few and far between.

Wearing jeans gets you points, I suppose.

The class is messy. Oh my…

Detached teachers and apathetic students do not represent the entire picture, of course. There are passionate exchanges taking place every day despite stacked odds. Even so, the handicapped education system keeps producing more nonprofit ventures coupled with private interests to create a booming industry. In order to explain the transformation from nonprofit mission to unusual prospectus, the next entry will track the money trail that keeps cash spiraling down the tubes.


2 Responses to “Politics as Usual”

  1. 1 BigDon February 16, 2008 at 3:21 pm

    You can talk openly about dogs without being politically incorrect. All domestic dogs, from Chihuahua to Great Dane, are single species canis familiaris; breed genetic differences result from enforced separations by breeders/trainers over 800 years. Similarly, all humans are a single species homo sapiens; race differences resulted from separation over thousands of years by geographic barriers. Dog breeds and human races are directly analogous as sub-groups within their respective single species.

    Much can be learned from studying dogs; medical science does a great deal of this to avoid experimentation on humans. The brain is no exception, as dog brain structure and information flow processes are quite similar to that in humans. Numerous dog brain studies to analyze human brain diseases/conditions are in the medical literature.

    Any experienced dog breeder will acknowledge the profound influence of genetics on intelligence and behavior. Traits such as trainability, aggression, are highly heritable and difficult to modify. Evaluations of dog intelligence have developed breed rankings according to ease of training and reliability of correct response to learned commands (analogous to education and testing in humans). Among dog breeds, there is a huge Achievement Gap, and it is GENETIC.

    Humans are not exempt from the fundamental rules of biology. For humans, there is a mountain of relevant peer-reviewed research by well-credentialed scholars; numerous key citations are available in two recent books: Hart “Understanding Human History” and Lynn “Race Differences in Intelligence.” It isnt fuzzy feel-good PC information, but it is indeed solid science…

  2. 2 Misanthrope February 19, 2008 at 6:30 pm

    I believe that tucked into allot of rhetoric BigDon’s “scientific” assumption is that blacks are gentically stupidier than other races of people. Unless of course my black brain misinterprested his complex linguistic message. It is,therefore black stupidity that provides for their social predicament, and not their social predicatment that provides for their lack of education.

    Having to respond to such assertions is why I no longer approach such matter’s as actually having anything to do with intellect. 2 decades of having my intelligence insulted is quite enough for me to stop engaging in a discussion in which I’m the only person who listens. Instead I invoke my right to bear arms and prepare myself to make every single individual who has wronged me directly or indirectly feel my pain without any regard to decency. Or to say it the way my black brain can readily process: If I catch you in the street BigDon, I will kill you.

    Keep doing your thing Drew!

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