In America, “teachers and other public education employees, such as community-college faculty, school psychologists and janitors, are quitting their jobs at the fastest rate on record, government data shows,” the Wall Street Journal proclaimed last month.
The WSJ article continued to cite Labor Department statistics and reference “a tight labor market.” Phrases appeared such as “voluntary departures,” “unemployment rate,” and “public education budgets.” Quoted experts included a labor economist from ZipRecruiter and the executive of Teach Plus (a hedge fund and Gates-funded group).
There seemed to be a perspective missing from this article: what it feels like to be part of that reality. While national labor statistics and teacher shortages in states such as Michigan paint a certain ‘speaks-for-itself’ picture, I want to shed light on the visceral experience that accompanies a sinking education landscape in America. Again, numbers alone do not tell the story of what it feels like to be a beneficiary of America’s bad education policies; and we need to humanize the trauma felt in order to carve a path forward.
A Different Perspective
Eve Ewing’s book “Ghosts in the Schoolyard” is incredible for many reasons, but one thing she does really well is to juxtapose the cold, technocratic process of identifying which schools to close in Chicago with the people who are most affected by the closings.
Here is an example of Chicago Public Schools Officials justifying one school’s closing:
- “…The enrollment efficiency range is plus or minus 20% of the facility’s ideal enrollment…As I stated, the enrollment of Mayo as of the 20th day of attendance for the 2012-2013 school year is 408. This number is below the enrollment efficiency range, and thus the school is underutilized” .
Ewing masterfully picked at the seemingly inevitability of the statements: “These numbers are taken to be unbiased and a truer representation of what happens in a school building than more qualitative measures (teacher observations, for instance), which are seen as overly subjective or unreliable”.
The overuse of data in education can have the effect of stripping away feelings and humanity from the conversation.
Ewing gives voice to several people who are actually affected by the school closings:
- “My name is Ke’Shaun…the school is like my home. And the teacher is like my, um, mother. And…the students like my brothers and sisters and my cousins. That’s the reason I do not want Mayo School to close”.
- “This is real fast without taking into consideration real people, real babies, okay?…I consider us a community, a family. Okay? We’ve come a long way…Coming over here from Africa and going through what we went through in terms of the slavery and our ancestors and so on and so forth…”.
- “Now, one of the things that I have looked at from after the first speech to the final speech is that this school is based on family. And i know because as I stated I have four decades of it. To tear down this family will be one of the biggest mistakes that Chicago Public Schools has done in years”.
While using numerical criteria such as “reading value-added scores” and “enrollment efficiency ranges” to choose which schools to close, the school officials seemed to forget about other factors that determine the effectiveness of a school. What type of environment does a school have? How does it feel to go to a school? What is a school doing to create good, moral people? What is going on at home that affects what happens at school? Does a school have the resources to succeed? Does a school have the capability to magically transcend poverty and racism in its student outcomes? What is the history that leads a school to perform good or bad on standardized tests? These are much harder factors to quantify, so perhaps education evaluations must include factors that are both qualitative and quantitative in nature.
Eve Ewing also recounts the grieving process for teachers, community members, and students that goes into dealing with the trauma of a school closing. She touches on the “fear surrounding the process, followed by the collective efforts to fight the closing, then the startling realization that their efforts wouldn’t succeed, followed by feelings of futility or voicelessness and then resignation”.
I can’t help but relate to this perspective in my own teaching career. I have taught 8 classes per day in a failing Detroit for-profit charter school, I have seen the disparity in educational resources to urban and suburban schools, I have watched Black students get suspended and expelled at higher rates than their White counterparts, I have experienced students dying and arrested, and I have watched as edtech products and standardized tests have systematically degraded the teaching profession. I certainly have moments of futility and hopelessness, coupled with many of the feelings identified by Psychology Today regarding trauma: fear and anxiety, anger, sadness, guilt, and feeling numb.
Education provides other traumas for American students. In a society that 21% of all students live in poverty, students at many school systems are convinced that their self worth is measured and defined by test scores and compliance with rules. Rather than focus on student engagement or helping students to approach the real life problems that face their communities, too often students are stuck preparing for standardized tests or learning curriculum that does not relate to their lives. Sadly, this reality is far more common for students in poverty and students of color. To enforce this regimen of standardized testing achievement and false meritocracy, tactics such as control, fear, victim-blaming, manipulation, gaslighting are regularly perpetrated onto students. To many students, school itself is another perpetrator of trauma instead of a way out of trauma.
In one underserved school I worked at for instance, the principal got on the PA and said, “This month I will expel 10 students. Have a great day!” Then he got on the PA 10 minutes later and said, “1 out of 10! Have a great day!” How are students supposed to handle that? What type of environment does that produce?
Is it any wonder that students numb themselves with with their smart phones and video games when school does not connect to their realities? Polls regularly find that an increasing number of students do not find value in school.
The Path Forward
Whenever I get negative, I remember how much light there is at the end of the tunnel.
Public education is an amazing social construct that has the potential to be radical and revolutionary, and it already is in many cases! I think of some of the teachers I have met in recent months in the Detroit area who are fighting the power in big ways and small. I have taken a concerted effort to network with other teachers in my area who value social justice and want to humanize education. Guess what? If you look around, there are a TON of people rebelling against school being an oppressive force. One of the keys is finding ways to band together and discussing the path forward. Find your network. Just one example is MIStudentsDream, a Detroit-based group that meets and organizes around issues of education justice and immigration justice. This group has monthly potlucks and various political organizing opportunities, and is a great way to band together with like-minded educators from other schools. A great way to deal with the trauma of bad education policy is to find other people to share in dealing with the trauma.
Next, be a helping hand to have students tell the truth about themselves and our society. Do not shy away from controversial issues or current events just because students have trouble calmly debating. Rather, students need to engage in the tough questions of today in order to create a better world for tomorrow. It is also paramount to get students outside of whatever bubble they occupy. Especially in the segregated Detroit metro area, it is easy for schools to perpetuate the bubble mentality through an insular and individualized outlook. We must find ways to connect students to broader communities and communities of people who don’t look like them and who don’t think like them. That is how a multi-cultural democracy survives.
And of course, on a systemic level, we need to truly invest in education, not standardized tests. As of a few years ago, the average student in a big-city takes 112 standardized tests throughout their pre-school-12th grade school career. We know that this destroys the love of learning for students, and unduly creates unfair evaluation measures upon which schools are forced to acquiesce.
As for Michigan, it is simply unacceptable that school funding has fallen more sharply than any other state in America. Worse yet, the report by Michigan State shows us that funding for “at-risk” students has fallen by 60% per pupil. Worse yet, there feels to be a resounding educational culture of pushing students more and more on educational technology and less on socialization and teachable moments. Despite me having countless moments of joy in the classroom and creating lessons that are making a difference in students’ lives, it often feels as if these moments are going against the system rather than being a part of it. As teachers throughout America strike for better conditions, when will it be our turn in Michigan to stand up for our students and to fight for our futures?