I had a conversation with someone the other day about racism in America, because, frankly, if I’m around a person (or group of people) for more than an hour, I will start proselytizing about social justice. It’s what I do.
But the more I do “proselytize,” the more daunting the whole agent-of-social-change thing becomes. I don’t know if it’s because I live in Oklahoma or if the lack of racial diversity in Norman, Oklahoma, where I am currently residing, has anything to do with it, but any mention of White Privilege or systemic racism and I get snide comments, complete apathy, or a roll of the eyes.
Suddenly, because I care about equality and about reversing the systemic socioeconomic stratification of our society, I am a “radical.” That title alone prevents me from being taken seriously at all by some leftwing groups and individuals and by most if not all “moderate” or right of moderate groups and individuals.
Why does my unwavering passion for justice make me a “radical” when the very reason we created this nation was because “all men are created equal” and because a government should protect their “unalienable rights” to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?
(I get it that our dear Founding Fathers really weren’t talking about black people or Native Americans when they wrote those words but I think it’s safe to say that if they lived in this day and age, they would be. They were pretty progressive guys.)
The other day in class another incidence occurred whereby my peers surprised me by deeming me a “radical.” We were discussing—off topic, I’ll admit—the purpose of primary and secondary education in America in a small group of about five of us. Education in America is my thing—my obsession, as I’m sure you can tell if you read this blog. Therefore, when one of my peers said that the exclusive purpose of education was to prepare kids for college and/or the labor market, I jumped on him.
No, no, no, I said. The real and primary purpose of education in America is the ideological homogenization of students and the deliberate socioeconomic stratification of society based on class and race.
As soon as the words left my mouth, each of their faces contorted in this look of disgust and fury. They threw their arms up and lashed back:
"You’re a radical!"
"That’s a bit extreme…"
"You should probably leave the country if that’s the way you feel."
I was slightly taken aback at how vehement—and unified—their responses were. We weren’t in a science or math class, where students don’t really study society and therefore probably don’t learn much about it unless they make an extra effort. We were in a political science class that studies religion and the constitution. These people are supposed to have some idea of the way the world, let alone this country, really works.
Why, then, should it come as any kind of shocking surprise that the world isn’t as neat and fair as we’d like it to be? More importantly, why is even a mention of this idea so outlandish and radical that the entire issue was brushed aside as irrelevant and unworthy of discussion altogether?
The lack of a critical attitude toward our society and the apathy so many people have for the injustices they know exist is disheartening, to say the least.
In moments like these, I turn inward—to my roommate next door who does understand or to my boyfriend who does understand—so that I can forget that there are so many people who just don’t understand and don’t care to. But this in itself is detrimental because when I go back to the real world and discuss these issues with everyday people, I’m just unpleasantly surprised and even more frustrated at how backward mainstream mentality is.
Happy Monday, everybody.
The students that stood on that stage in front of the rest of the graduating class, indeed, would be top students during their four-year college careers. We were the ones that would go on to become doctors, engineers, architects, educators, law school students, and dentists, to name a few. Our schooling experience had been specifically designed to put us ahead of everyone else. It had set us up to be leaders and to be far more successful than the average student.
For the fractional top percent of students in high schools around the country, the tracking system can be a saving grace. But, meanwhile, the vast majority of students that are not on the highest academic track are being denied critical educational opportunities. They are asked to meet a standard that falls far short of excellence.
This is not to say that students on lower academic tracks cannot succeed academically in college or in their careers. They absolutely can—and do. But these are exceptional cases. The question is this: Why do we let some faceless bureaucratic institution decide which children are worthy of high investment and which ones are not?
Think like a parent: You have a child that you love and adore with all your heart. He is, after all, a part of you. You have placed him in what you know to be a good public school just outside your neighborhood. You know that your Johnny is a smart, smart boy. He asks questions, he is articulate, and he always says he wants to be a pilot (Johnny has an obsession with airplanes). But Johnny has real difficulty sitting still and focusing on one task, let alone taking long, standardized tests. He also gets into trouble in class pretty often because he’s a talker. He’s probably not the best reader, you know that, but you also know he’s smart enough to become
an excellent reader. His best subject is math, but because he’s not great at taking long tests, he often scores poorly on his math tests. But you know
he understands the material. He just needs practice with his work ethic and focus.
When presented with the option of whether you’d like to place your son on the lower or higher academic track, what do you choose? Do you choose to lower the standards so that he does well with ease? Or do you choose to raise the standards so that he is challenged and forced to learn more?
Unfortunately, it isn’t your choice. And most likely, Johnny will be placed on a lower academic track. For those persistent parents that do know how the system works, there may be a chance that they have more of a say. But ultimately the decision that will dictate your child’s future is made by that faceless bureaucratic institution. The fact of the matter is that “there is overwhelming research evidence that tracking students by ability has no educational benefit for students and in fact is deleterious to academic achievement, extracurricular participation, self-concept, peer relationships, career aspirations and motivation”
(Black Students and School Failure
, Irvine, p. 10
Despite all the evidence against its benefit, tracking still functions as a means of differentiating education in our public schools. There is no doubt, and empirical evidence proves, that all people are endowed with different strengths and weaknesses. The tracking system, however, does not differentiate on this basis. If this were the case, schools would group students by these strengths and weaknesses so that they were in classes that catered to them.
Instead of differentiating the means and methods of educating students based on their strengths and weaknesses, schools differentiate based on the standards applied to those students. The end result is that the graduating class comprises students on the stage, who are starting college with a college-level educational background; and students on the floor, who barely made it through high school or just breezed by, and lack critical skills they’ll need if
they even go to college. And that’s not to mention those students—about 100 out of my initial class of around 800—that drop out entirely and never graduate.
I can’t help but think that our education system in America is built to perpetuate and worsen the widening gap between rich and poor, white and people of color.
This is the reality—that the increasing achievement gaps in education reflect the growing disparity in our nation as a whole. The statistics, the data, the evidence are all there, but absolutely nothing that addresses the root of the issue is being done.
I’m convinced there is a lack of action for a reason.
When we moved into a real house for the first time, my mother was determined that we should live in the district of the best public school around. And so we did.
For two years, I went to public school before my mother became dissatisfied and sent me, once again, to a private school. I stayed there for a year and a half before money got really tight and I was forced to go back to my public school in the middle of my sophomore year. But having come from all the best schools, and having a mother who was very much involved in my school experience, I was unquestionably placed on the advanced track.
While my other peers were learning how to get by, I was learning how to write college-level essays. While they were bored in class, my teachers constantly challenged me. While they were locked in a classroom culture that devalued achievement, I was surrounded by students with ambition and motivation. While my other peers were expected to pass, I was expected to excel.
I graduated in the top two percent of my class of over 700 students. On the stage of my high school graduation, where all the top students sat, were the same students that had been plucked by the system and placed on the advanced track.
One of the most fundamental problems with the tracking system in primary and secondary education is that it systematically creates and maintains our stratified society. This system deems some students worthy of the best education and some students worthy of the worst. It challenges some students to exceed what is expected of them, and it limits other students to achieve the bare minimum.
The immediate implications of this tracking system are that only a fraction of the students that graduate are ready for college. The medium-term implications are that the standard in colleges, specifically state universities, becomes lowered because so great a percentage of the students don’t have the basic skills necessary for college-level success.
To compound the problem, people of color and the poor tend to be placed on the lowest academic tracks. For example, black students, “particularly black male students, are three times as likely to be in class for the educable mentally retarded as are white students, but only one-half as likely to be in class for the gifted or talented
” (Black Students and School Failure, Irvine, p. 11
). Researchers have concluded that “two-thirds or more of high-ability, high [socioeconomic status] students were in the academic track, but only one-half of the high-ability, low [socioeconomic status] students were enrolled in the academic track
This is an example of the re-segregation taking place in schools today, in which students of color are placed on different academic tracks because of pervasive, conscious and/or subconscious racist beliefs of their inferiority.
The immediate impact of the tracking system in primary and secondary education is displayed in college enrollment and dropout rates. In 2010, 60.5 percent of white students enrolled in college, compared to a mere 14.5 percent of black students, 13 percent of Hispanic students, 6.1 percent of Asian/Pacific Islander students, and .9 percent of American Indian/Alaska Native students
Moreover, many of those students of color that do make it to college find that they are not prepared—academically, financially or socially—for college. Only 20.4 percent of black students, 27.9 percent of Hispanic students, and 21.8 percent of American Indian/Alaska Native students graduated from college in 2008
. The graduation rates for Asian/Pacific Islander and white students were 45 percent and 41.1 percent, respectively.
Programs with a mission to equalize education are not enough. They are a painkiller rather than an antibiotic. The problem is much deeper, much more complex and far too multi-faceted for certain ingredients in the prescription to make any real, lasting difference
. Our schools need holistic reformation. It is more than just misallocation or unfair distribution of resources in the education system. There is something else going on—something far more intentional than we’d like to believe.
We must realize our education system is actively
promoting hierarchies based on racial and ethnic discrimination while hiding behind the glossy shield of programs with “good intentions.”