Inequality Exists in Education. Pedagogy Isn’t Gonna to Fix It

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At-risk children who reach school without basic skills are 25 percent more likely to drop out, 40 percent more likely to become teen parents and 60 percent less likely to go to college.  -Claudia Miner

There are 3 of us, all teachers, planning an upcoming Grade 2 literacy unit.  We know the class to be diverse, in terms of skills, needs, and interests. Sitting here in the office, pedagogy seems to be the key to meeting these challenges head on.  Game day comes and we are PREPARED! And excited and scared. We want this to work because, well for one, this is our job and failure hurts, but primarily, it is our chance to put our theoretical “best practices” to the test.

The maze of school is designed for those with privilege

The first lesson goes well.  All students are engaged and on task.  But as the days and weeks go by, it becomes abundantly clear that that we are not meeting the needs of all learners in the room.  It’s not that we can’t engage the children, or get them to line up, or get them fully involved in a meaningful learning experience.  It’s not that. It’s not that at all. It is glaring realization that we can’t fill in the gaping holes of missing skills. Our very best pedagogy can’t make up for the lack of life experiences, the missing meals, the missing mother, the incarcerated father, or the missing love.

No lesson, no teacher, no team can give them what they don’t have.  Our best practices can’t provide them with privilege. 

School does a great job with students who arrive with these skills in place but not so much with students who don’t.  It’s as if there is an invisible, immutable leveled maze. All students enter the maze but some quickly fast track up to the next level.  For those who get lost on the first level, they get stuck there. To get them out you have to trace the maze back to where they are. At times you can see them but they are just out of your reach or in the moments you find them another situation will take you away.  Imagine how it would feel to be trapped there, all alone. 

Some schools have more privilege

“high-achieving public-schools are united by a thriving community of economically secure middle-class families with sufficient political power to demand great schools, the time and resources to participate in those schools, and the tax money to amply fund them. In short, great public schools are the product of a thriving middle class, not the other way around.” –Nick Hanauer

Months have passed since our time at this school and I still think about it, trying to wrap my mind around this complex situation.  It’s nobody’s fault. Not the school’s, not the teacher’s, not our’s. Perhaps though, we all are a little complicit in taking our privilege for granted and ignoring all that it has afforded us.  We need to talk about and recognize privilege as a force stronger than any pedagogy we might put in place. And it is not that we should give up the ghost on pedagogy, but maybe we shouldn’t put all our eggs in the pedagogy basket and be surprised when nothing really changes.  Maybe we need to diversify our energy and focus, and look privilege in the eyes. 

What if these children lived in another neighborhood, say one up the hill?  What if they attended a less vulnerable school? Would their schooling be different?  Instead of being one of many, would they be one of the few and receive the attention they deserve?

It’s time to share privilege

“How am I supposed to feel about my children’s success when I know, deep down, in my heart of hearts, that the world around them would be a better place if more children like them won fewer of the spoils?” –Will Reitch

And what of our hopes and dreams of empowering all students in the journey towards becoming fully actualized humans and citizens?  Do we mean this only so far as our own privilege and that of our children stays fully in tact?

Education asks students to conform to it’s maze, the one biased towards those with privilege, what might our system look like if we rebuilt this to meet those outside of privilege?  Wouldn’t we all benefit?

How might we begin to imagine and create feasible programs that support the needs of all students, not just those who show up with privilege?

How might we share privilege?

 

 

Privilege

blindspot                                                                            Shared on flickr by Thomas Hawk

We all have a blind spot around our privilege shaped exactly like us.
                                                                                    -Junot Dias

I am white, straight, married, middle class, and neurotypical. I could go on. Basically, I am privileged. I have privilege. Privilege, like the air around us, is omnipresent but invisible and easy to forget. We take note when it is low supply.

Before last spring, I hadn’t given much thought to privilege. While listening to a series of youth give their TED talk, I had a moment of what I call “clarity and truth.”  These students were exploring their own privilege or lack of privilege, and how they had created authentic, unique identities. Wow! Mind blown! Here were these teens who recognized their own privilege. Somehow, I had moved through life without even considering it! Blind spot alert.

Throughout my life, I had been aware of situations when I didn’t have privilege (like in university when every science prof was white, male, and middle-aged). These big moments of no privilege were easy to spot. Just look to the news to see this how lack of privilege stands out. When a women wins a Nobel Prize in Physics (only the 3rd women in 117 years!) it is headline news. Yet, in the very same week, we hear a Cern physicist announce that physics is a field for men (not women), because it was designed by men. How crazy is that? He got the second part right!

It is easy to recognize situations when there is a huge lack of privilege (just think of #metoo) or when there is a lot of privilege (Bill Gates type privilege). It becomes more challenging when privilege is more subtle. I had missed the subtle areas of my life where privilege was present and how it manifested.

As I listened to these youth describe how they had forged an authentic identity, without privilege on their side, I began to realize that I had taken my privilege for granted. I hadn’t been aware of how I could use my privilege to make space for others to create identities for themselves.  In the months to come, I reflected that the materials, books, movies, and paradigms that I relied on in my classroom were not as diverse and inclusive as they could have been. I accepted that my lack of understanding of neurodiversity had caused me to create learning that was incredibly biased towards neurotypical learning. Most ironically of all, I recognized that I had presented science as status quo truth, while ignoring other world views. My privilege was not only invisible to me, but it was a set of blinders that kept me looking at a very small slice of the world

I had to look at my privilege (even the ugly parts) and say: I see you privilege but you don’t own me, I am not yours; I see you privilege but I can topple you; I recognize that you are part of me, but you are not going to define me; I am not going to work on your behalf and keep your status quo.

Privilege, I see you now.

_____________________

Keniesha, Tor, and Hannah: thank you for the moment of “clarity and truth”, thank you for teaching me so much about the world, thank you for being role models, thank you for your bravery and wisdom.