Our Education System Isn't Broken, It's Designed to Create Winners and Losers
Schools intentionally and deliberately under-educate significant portions of our society.
In January, Frontlineaired a documentary about Michelle Rhee's tenure as chancellor of DC Public Schools. On that show, Rhee articulated a major argument of education reformers: "I don't think our kids are broken. I think our system is broken." And she was right about this: our kids are not broken. But is our American public school system broken? Historical truth tells us otherwise.
The first public schools in this nation were charity schools for the children of the indigent and immigrants. Curricula pushed assimilation, acculturation, and morality. Schools sought to educate students just enough so they would be suitable for unskilled labor. Management of our unskilled labor forces would come from those who could afford to educate their children in schools not limited to assimilation and acculturation. Schools for the wealthy included the study of languages and religion, philosophy—things that humanize people and make us think.
But the poor, the working class—without wealth or resources and who had themselves been insufficiently educated—that part of our population was relegated to our public schools. And our public schools were, for the most part, only available to white men, first, and then white men and women. The common school movement saw the rise of education for whites across all socioeconomic situations. Horace Mann came along to revise and re-imagine our public school system and called for education to be the great equalizer. Only, while he was doing that, it was still illegal for blacks to be literate in much of these United States.
And even in those areas where blacks had been legally permitted to be educated before the Civil War ended, quality education was a struggle. In both the North and in the South post-slavery, education for black people in this nation was controlled by whites who benefited from creating and maintaining inequitable education programs. White Southerners feared literate black masses so much that they were willing to forego public education for their own children. Eventually, they allowed for black education that would give former slaves minimum knowledge while eviscerating notions of their social mobility, intellectual advancement, or political empowerment.
This brief trip—so much more could be added about the historical efforts to educate Native Americans and others—down memory lane demonstrates that school reform cannot be ahistorical. Our education system does exactly what it was created to do: It sorts and it sifts. It chooses some over others. It creates winners and losers. It decides who should be educated for management and who should be prepared for whatever unskilled labor is available. Our education system has always done these things. It's not right.
In urban areas, our public schools are still primarily for the children of the indigent—those who have likely themselves been under-educated, those who declare their poverty by where they live, by qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch and/or by simply sending their children to schools in their neighborhoods and hoping for the best. This is the truth about public schools, and this is the system we have allowed in this nation. Our forefathers and foremothers set the parameters. And we have permitted these conditions. So while our education system is highly problematic—it is neither fair nor equal—it's not broken. It does exactly what it was deliberately built to do.
Such deliberate social and political choices regarding public education have created whatever racial and socioeconomic differences in achievement on standardized tests exists—commonly referred to as the "achievement gap." The so-called achievement gap and its deficit-oriented stance suggests that because black students—and Latino, Native American, and poor students—do less well on standardized tests than do their wealthy, white counterparts, something is wrong with them.
But remember, Michelle Rhee said, "Our kids are not broken." And I agree with her. So, if our kids are not broken, why is our focus on closing the so-called "achievement gap" between students' test scores? If our kids are not broken, why is education reform work fueled by the idea that we should raise the test scores of black, Latino, and Native American children to the test score levels of white children?
I'm not advocating or supporting low test scores; our analysis of the problem and the solution is wrong. Our education system has created our condition. Our system has determined that this gap would exist, and we have imagined that our students are the problem. Educators now imagine our students and the communities we serve to be deficient, as problems to be solved, as errors to be corrected.
Test score mania has turned our schools into test prep factories where the study of languages and music and art—those elements that humanize people—those things are sacrificed, and we pressure students to catch up so that the gap is closed. Gloria Ladson-Billings recently said, "Catching up is made nearly impossible by our structural inequalities."
In this nation, poor urban and rural communities are consistently under-funded and under-resourced. Many educators are well intentioned yet ill equipped to handle the myriad complexities our students and their families present in an education system that was created for them NOT to succeed. However instead of addressing the system, instead of working toward more equitable funding, instead of ensuring educators are well-prepared and well-equipped—not just when they enter the profession but that they remain current over time despite shifts in their student demographics, even amidst changes in community needs—we spend our time and our efforts addressing the so-called achievement gap.
Since our kids are not broken—since high stakes standardized tests do not truly measure learning—when we focus on closing the achievement gap, we are focused on the wrong thing. Our analysis of the situation is off. Our focus should be on the education debt owed to the families coping with generations of social, political, and economic disenfranchisement and under-education. This shift to the education debt is significant because it removes the blame and the focus from our students, families, and communities and puts it on our systems.
When we shift to confront our education debt, we will see that the root causes of our education issues and the social responsibility for our education system are different. Our education system permits and demands differences in access to opportunities—it compels inequity. And it's our education system that we should be addressing. Our education system was built to produce the educational and economic situation we have right now. Our energy and efforts should be devoted to creating new education systems and structures that will address and overturn and pay back to those whose forbearers endured suffering and struggle, years of living on the fringe, decades of working the most and getting the least, generations of systemic and deliberate social, political, and economic disenfranchisement by way of under-education.
How will we shift our language, thinking, and focus to build new systems of education that fully and equitably fund schools and equip educators? Equity and opportunity matter. It's way past time that we take our blame and focus off students and put it on our educational, socioeconomic, and political systems that allow, demand, and perpetuate inequity. We who are committed to school reform must consider how we can think and act differently.
It's way past time that we shift our focus to educational excellence, opportunity and access, equitable school funding and distribution of resources, and new ways of doing school. It's way past time for us to build new education systems for the new processes we need and the better outcomes we say we want to have. People are not problems to be solved—they can and will solve their own problems. But our responsibility is to create the conditions for this to happen. Our students don't need our paternalism, pressure, or pity. They need us to change our minds and work to change our education system.