If there’s one thing that bothers me, it’s when people try to say intelligent things about subjects that they know absolutely nothing about. It’s all the more irritating when the subject matter is something I personally do know a thing or two about, like IP law, or law in general. When Sarah Palin mentions the word “Constitution,” I shudder.
However, if there’s one thing that doesn’t really bother me, it’s hypocrisy. Thus, I am now going to write a pretty long blog post about a subject I really have no business writing about: the U.S. public education system. I was a teacher for three years, but that was in Japan. It was a fascinating experience, don’t get me wrong, but the Japanese education system presents teachers (especially foreign teachers) with an entirely different set of challenges, problems and rewards as the U.S. public school system, and I don’t think there’s much of a basis of comparison. Everything I know about teaching in U.S. public schools I learned from a brief tutoring stint in college (more on this later), Stand and Deliver, and to a lesser extent, Dangerous Minds. Now that I think about it, I never actually saw Dangerous Minds, but I was a fan of that Coolio song, even if it did take a few liberties with the Stevie Wonder sample.
I have many teacher friends, so there’s a decent chance that some of you are reading this post right now. If that’s the case, I encourage you to let me know your thoughts on it. Whether you agree, disagree, think it’s enlightening, funny, fucked-up, aggravating—I’d love to know your thoughts. Normally I hate it when people disagree with me, but this is one time when I gladly welcome dissenting opinions.
This post begins with a picture that many of you probably saw in the Facebook-o-sphere back in Octoberish of last year:
You remember that one, right? There’s a high likelihood that you either posted it yourself, or made comments on somebody else’s post of it about how you disagreed with the message. Although I am quite the liberal, I fell into the first bucket. I don’t care much for 90+% of the bullshit that conservatives espouse, but I do think they’re onto something with the lack of personal responsibility in our generation, and the problems it can cause.
My sister fell into the “disagree” category, and my posting of the picture sparked a debate, first on my Facebook wall, then in email. It was sort of an arms race, with each response getting longer and longer as the universe of subjects we were attempting to address increased with as the correspondence progressed. My sister was very actively following and participating in the Occupy [fill in name of place] movement, so a significant chunk of her emails discussed that phenomenon. I was in Japan so I was somewhat detached from the Occupy movement, but that didn’t stop me from having strong views about it (see hypocrisy comment above). Eventually I drove the topic away from Occupy and more towards education and personal responsibility, which were the topics on my mind when I originally posted the picture (I understand that the picture was a response to the Occupy movement, but I feel that its implications are more far-reaching). In my final email to my sister in this thread, I described a very pessimistic and downright bleak view of the current state of public education in this country. Alas, my sister never responded. However, I’m going to largely cut and paste from the email (I’m a huge fan of recycling) for this post, and maybe that will inspire some of you (and sister, if you’re reading this, I’d still love to hear your opinions on that email).
Here’s the basic theory: let’s define “success” as “gainful employment through which one can support him- or herself.” One’s chance of achieving success increases if he or she gets a “good education.” A kid who grows up in Marin county and goes to Redwood (the largely white, wealthy public school I attended) has a larger change of achieving success than one who grows up in San Francisco proper and goes to Mission High (one of the poorer and larger inner-city public schools in SF). True, kids who go to Mission High might be better trained in skills one learns “outside of the classroom,” and kids who go to Redwood are likely more “sheltered.” Furthermore, there are a number of kids who go to Mission High who will achieve success, and a number of kids who go to Redwood who won’t. But that notwithstanding, I’m the type of guy who likes to play the percentages, and if I had the choice of sending my kid (I mean, when I have kids) to Redwood or Mission High, I want her chance of success to be as high as possible and so I’m sending her to Redwood. If she doesn’t develop social skills there, so be it. I certainly struggled with social skills growing up, and I turned out relatively okay.
Of course, I didn’t choose to go to Redwood—my parents chose for me, by being affluent and moving to Marin. A large percentage of our country’s youth don’t have parents in a position to make that choice, and to some extent, let’s face it, these kids are fucked. Their schools are complete shitholes, their parents aren’t going to instill in them a strong work ethic, let alone help them with their math homework, and there are a ton of other forces working against them that I’m sure I could never comprehend.
So what is the solution? We liberals are really into solving the problem by pointing out all of the different people and institutions to blame, and then suggesting throwing money at them. The kid comes from a broken home, so his parents need more money. He goes to a crap school, so the school needs more money. The teachers need to get paid more. We need smaller classrooms where teachers can provide individualized attention to cater to each student’s different learning style. We need better facilities, and more of a focus on the arts. No Child Left Behind is a bunch of malarkey.
Conservatives have a much simpler approach: So you go to a shitty school? Too bad. Sucks to be you. If I went to your school, I’d work my ass off so I could succeed. If you’re not succeeding, then you must be lazy, and deserve to fail.
My thoughts on this fall somewhere in between (which, to most liberals, is unsettling. Let’s face it—centrist views are often the most extreme—ask anyone who dislikes Obama). I care less about the problems and more about solutions, so what is there to do? The common analogy is “leveling the playing field”, but I want to examine what that actually means.
Let’s say that there’s a soccer team (we’ll call them the “Wildcats”) which is scheduled to play a game against another team (we’ll call them the “Emus”) in which the playing field is actually a slight hill, with the Wildcats defending the downhill goal (and this is a weird soccer league where you don’t switch sides half way through the game). The Wildcats, learning about this, are pretty pissed off, and now, as I see it, they have four options:
1. Forfeit the game–why bother when they’re going to lose?
2. Play as they always do. Chances are, they’re going to lose, what with the downhill disadvantage and all.
3. Spread the word about how they’re getting the short end of the stick, and gain support of the masses. Let’s say they do that, and the pro-Wildcat movement gets big–they even hold rallies in which they have speeches by celebrities and burn effigies of Emus. Then the Wildcats ask town council to get a bulldozer and literally make the playing field level, but unfortunately, nobody in the town council really cares much about soccer, and leveling the playing field costs an awful lot, so they don’t help out. So the Wildcats go door to door appealing to people to vote out the town council and vote in some pro-Wildcat folks who understand why this situation is so horrible. Election day comes, and low and behold the pro-Wildcat candidates win! But now they have to get all sorts of zoning permits to level the field, and they still have to get the money from somewhere, and it ends up that a number of the supposedly “pro Wildcat” candidates actually had their campaigns funded by parents of Emus, and suddenly don’t seem as thrilled about leveling the playing field. But it doesn’t really matter, because this whole process took a long time and the game was 7 months ago, and the Wildcats lost very badly.
4. The Wildcats, realizing that they’re going to lose if something doesn’t change, decide to train harder. They wake up an hour earlier every day and go to the gym and do squats to get stronger legs, and run up and down the bleachers to get better at running uphill. They practice kicking soccer balls uphill, and drill the goalies endlessly by forcing them to guard against shots on the downhill side of a hill much steeper than the actual playing field. When game time comes, they are much better prepared then the Emus. If the playing field was level, they’d surely destroy them. However, it’s not, but because they trained hard enough, they still have a chance of winning.
Now I’m going to exercise that hypocrisy I referred to above: although I grew up an Emu, I truly believe that the Wildcats would be best served taking option 4. In fact, I think that is the ONLY way they are going to succeed in America circa 2012.
I mentioned at the beginning that I had a little experience tutoring public high school students, while I was in college. Although it was a brief stint, it completely shaped how I think of education in America. So let me tell you about my time at Columbia tutoring boys through the South Bronx Educational Foundation (SBEF). I got the gig my senior year through a buddy who was involved, and since I was a pretty lazy senior otherwise, I agreed to donate 90 minutes of my not-so-precious time once a week to help 10 male high school juniors with their essay writing and composition skills, with the eventual goal of enabling them to write college entrance essays. The gig seemed fun and interesting enough, and I didn’t have to leave Columbia–part of the SBEF founder’s theory was that if the kids came to one of the greatest universities in America once a week, that would inspire them to want to get into college. They also had SAT tutoring 2 or 3 times a week, where students from Columbia Teacher’s College (who were a hell of a lot busier than I) would go to the kids’ school in the Bronx to give them free SAT tutoring in very small classes.
The first two weeks, Dave, the head guy of SBEF (and a very intimidating former military officer), came with the boys to Columbia. The week after that and from then on he left them on their own, and attendance dropped dramatically. 6 of the 10 the boys came less than 50% of the time, and rarely if ever did their homework (which was about an hour’s worth per week). The Teacher’s College tutors confirmed that attendance and homework completion was similar in the SAT classes, with the same boys slacking in both classes. There was one boy who came to every single essay-writing class and every single SAT class. He got into Columbia. There was another student who came to about 85% of the classes. He got into SUNY Buffalo (or maybe it was Binghamton…one of the two). The two boys who came about 65% of the time both got into Fordham, if memory serves me correctly. As for the other 6…well, I think one or two went to CUNY, but I’m not sure.
A good liberal at this point would be thinking of good excuses for the 6 who didn’t take advantage of the program. They came from broken homes. We weren’t good enough teachers. They had different learning styles that we didn’t understand. They couldn’t always attend because they had to work after-school jobs to support their families. The first one, while true, applied equally to all 10 students, to a more-or-less equal degree, so I’m not sure I’ll accept it for the lesser-attending 6. The second one I choose to believe isn’t true, especially for the teachers in Teacher’s College. The third one may have been true to some extent, but what were we supposed to do, get a different volunteer tutor for every boys’ learning style? The fourth one is, as my crim law professor used to say, “unmitigated bullshit.” These kids were not skipping their tutoring sessions because they had no other choice, they were skipping and then going and playing video games and basketball. I know this because they unabashedly told us—ah, the arrogance of youth. At one point the other tutors and I complained to Dave about some of the boys’ poor attendance, so he personally escorted the three worst ones to the subway in the Bronx and made sure they got on. They still didn’t show up to class. When class was over, I exited the building and saw the three of them standing in front, kicking a deflated basketball around. When I asked them why they didn’t come inside the building they said that they didn’t realize that they were supposed to go inside–even though the class was always taught inside…you know, in the classroom. I suppose that at that point they had skipped enough classes that they may have forgotten that fact, but I’m not going to give them the benefit of the doubt on this one. I’m fairly certain that these boys were actually lying to me, and that the reason they chose to skip class that day was because, although kicking a deflated basketball wasn’t as enjoyable as playing video games, it was more enjoyable to them than learning how to write essays.
It was a pretty harsh lesson to a young liberal who was constantly talking about how the underprivileged need more help to donate my time for free to such kids, only to have them fuck around. What’s the point of providing somebody with an opportunity if they’re not going to make the most of it–or make anything of it at all? And if you’re a good liberal, you can think of even more excuses for these boys. “They had been in such poor schools their whole lives that they had no idea how to even go about trying to learn”–that’s a good one. Or maybe they’re not just excited about writing essays and studying for SATs. This is true–video games are way more exciting. But here’s the kicker—sometimes, in life, you have to do stuff that you don’t like doing.
Let’s take a moment to let that one to soak in. Sometimes, in life, you have to do stuff that you don’t like doing. I have another buddy who is in grad school, who talked about how no recent college graduates in the liberal arts can get jobs. They’re all art majors, or English majors, or art history majors, and they’re shocked that there’s nothing in the job market for them. As my friend pointed out, we were told by our parents to study whatever we want and do what makes us happy. This led to a feeling of entitlement, and spread to the point where we felt we never had to do anything we didn’t. This spread down to all levels of the socio-economic scale, even to my SBEF students, who were under the impression that they could just play video games instead of actually putting in a minimal amount of hard work, and that they’d be just fine. I simply don’t agree with this philosophy, and neither did the woman in the picture at the top of this blog entry. That’s why I posted her picture to Facebook.
Let’s stop looking at the down side of my SBEF tutoring experience and look at the success story. Consider Eliseo, the one kid who came to every single class and who got into Columbia. He had grown up in the same neighborhood and gone to the same shitty schools as the other kids. His parents were from the DR, were very poor, and didn’t speak any English—I’m willing to bet they weren’t able to provide too much support. What did he have that the other kids did not? From my observation, it wasn’t about what he had, it’s about what he didn’t have: friends. Eliseo was a loser. He was tall, lanky, goofy-looking and awkward. He had thick, coke-bottle glasses and wasn’t good at sports. The other boys teased him a lot and called him “faggot.” He didn’t have the option of playing video games or basketball with the other kids because they didn’t like him and wouldn’t let him join their reindeer games. Instead, he sucked it up and came to class. In the end, he got the last laugh, as he proved everybody wrong by getting into one of the top schools in the country despite being from the South Bronx. Sadly, I’ve lost touch with him, but still, I’m pretty sure he succeeded at Columbia, and I think he even made some friends.
I probably had the choice of becoming a U.S. public school teacher at one point, and as a math major I probably would have been in high demand. I chose not to do that—teaching is a form of martyrdom that I’m too weak to take on. It’s still a big interest of mine, and I’ve been following all of the debates with the anti-union folks. I watched Waiting for Superman and want to talk about it with every teacher I meet. Also, I’ve taken somewhat of an interest in the American Indian Public Charter School, a middle and high school in Oakland where students have hours and hours of really boring math and language skills geared towards standardized tests, with hours of homework on top of that, and not much else. The school is very strict about discipline and offers very few extra-curricular activities. It happens to be the school with the highest rate of kids going to college out of any public school in Oakland. Many of my fellow liberals oppose this school, because even though these kids may get into college, they will be at a disadvantage compared to other students because they don’t have “analytical skills.” This is true, they are at a disadvantage to most of their college classmates. But guess who is at a much, much, much bigger disadvantage? All of the other kids in Oakland who don’t get into college. The American Indian Public Charter School is young so we don’t know much about its alums, but I bet these kids do well. Why? Because they already have an understanding that the playing field isn’t level, and they already know how to work hard. True, they’re at a disadvantage compared to their college classmates, but guess what–they were at a disadvantage compared to the kids who went to Redwood when they were in high school, and they still got into college—the top colleges in the country, in fact.
I’ve looked extensively at the AIPCS website and particularly at the FAQs. I disagree with a lot of the founder’s views on free market capitalism (a post entitled “On Capitalism” is likely coming in the future), but I think he makes a very valid point about the difference between Wildcats and Emus on the FAQ page:
“Q: You have such high expectations, both academically and behaviorally. Don’t you think you should let kids be kids?
A: Those are middle-class values. You’re imagining kids going home from school and running around the neighborhood with other kids, playing hide and seek. This is not the reality for our students. If they aren’t working hard and learning how to behave appropriately, they are getting swallowed up by the streets.
Our model would not work in middle-class, white America. And we’ve never said that it would. Our model works for poor, urban minorities. And those who believe that poor minorities should be treated the same as middle class whites are fools. They have to work harder because they have farther to climb. They aren’t starting out with the same advantages. They don’t have family connections. They aren’t going to have parents who can help them with their calculus homework. If they are going to have a better life, they are going to have to work hard for it – harder than those in the suburbs – and not just when they feel like it, but every day.”
As an Emu, I can’t directly relate to this, but I must say his logic is compelling. You may have seen this recent blog about how in the video game of life, “Straight White Male” is the lowest difficulty setting. It’s true—we’re a privileged class, whether we’ll admit it or not. I was able to fuck around a lot as a kid and I still got into a good college. When I was there, I managed to fuck around a lot and I still made it into a good law school. I didn’t fuck around a lot in law school. I worked my ass off and it sucked. But hey, I had a pretty good run until then, and I recognize that if I was not born into an upper middle class family in Marin, I probably would have not made it where I am today if I had fucked around as much as I did growing up. Yes, as you can see, I’m still a liberal with plenty of white guilt.
Don’t get me wrong, I do think that we should give more money to schools and help disadvantaged youth as much as possible, but I believe that “as much as possible,” given our resources, is not much at all. We also need to, as a generation, get out of our entitlement mentality. Entitlement means more than believing that you should get to be rich just because your parents are. It also means believing that you’re entitled to get drunk all the time in high school and college because that’s what high school and college kids do, or that you’re entitled to play video games instead of going to tutoring sessions because video games are more fun. Conservatives hate this kind of entitlement, and love to say “the world owes you nothing, nobody is going to help you.” I disagree with the first half of that statement–the world owes a hell of a lot of people a hell of a lot (myself not included), and few conservatives making that statement would ever understand why. There are so many people and systems to blame, and you’d be pretty correct in blaming all of them. However, I think they are absolutely right about the second part–nobody is going to help. True, that’s largely the fault of the conservatives, who are doing their best to cut any assistance to the underprivileged, but I think they’re correct. I personally no longer have any faith in the government to solve our problems (future post idea: “On Government”). Kids will need to engage in a heck of a lot of self-help. Yes, it is a teacher’s job to motivate (the Wildcats need a good coach), but when somebody doesn’t succeed, “my teacher failed to motivate me” is a sorry excuse.
A side note about teachers: anybody who blames the teachers for the problems with public education can seriously go fuck themselves. As a lawyer, I work completely nightmarish, agonizing hours, but for doing so I get paid a good amount. If I got paid 1/2 or even 2/3 of what I get paid now, I probably would quit. Teachers work the same hours as me but get paid 1/4 of my salary. Most of them are probably better at teaching than I am at lawyering. This new (or is it new?) movement among conservatives to vilify teachers as lazy and overpaid is absolutely disgusting. It’s kind of like conservatives complaining about how prisoners have cushy, easy lives. My response to both arguments is the same. You think living in prison is easy? Go spend a week in San Quentin. You think teaching in inner-city schools is easy? Go teach at Mission High for a week. I dare you. I triple dog dare you.
I should wrap this post up. I want all Americans to be able to achieve success. I want all American kids to be good at math—I really think that this is more important in the brave new world than being good at the humanities, arts, etc. We can’t have everybody going to law school. America does reward lawyers and businessmen much more than engineers and scientists, and this is bad, but this is another subject for another post. Kids need to get over the sense of entitlement that comes from their parents, teachers, and society. In India and China, schools have much less money than they do here, but overall the kids are much better at math, because if you’re not good at math, YOU DIE. Many conservatives would love for that system to be instituted in America (and indeed, their legislative ideas are attempting to push the country in that direction). I think that if that policy were instituted in America tomorrow, we’d see a small uptick in math skills and a huge upsurge in deaths. This is not something I support, but whether or not I support it, there’s a chance it may some day become a reality, as the well runs dry and all wealth gets concentrated in the hands of few. It’s very important for us to keep fighting to make our schools better and to fix the broken systems, but what can I say? I’m a pessimist and I don’t have faith in American to ever come close to reclaiming its position as the top country in the world for primary and secondary education. If the kids want to succeed, they need education, and the bad news is, they need to work their butts off for it.
The whole system is facachta and unfair. I want the Wildcats to succeed, and encourage them to forgo enjoying their youth a bit to train harder than they ever thought themselves capable of training for the great soccer game of life. I don’t see any other path to success.