Idealistic young teacher enters classroom that is out of control. Young teacher tries his or her best to assert authority. Minority Student A responds with inner-city wisecrack and entire class laughs. Minority Student B makes aggressive comments about Minority Student A and fistfight ensues. Teacher goes home in tears. Yet through indefatigable large-heartedness and real talk with students, young teacher eventually makes astonishing progress with these overlooked kids in the face of an unsupportive bureaucracy. Heroic efforts are employed. Life paths are forever altered. Various obstacles, personal and academic, are overcome. Happy ending. Roll credits.
In real teaching, the outcome isn’t known. Little Raquan might make enormous gains once he starts meeting with you for tutoring after school. Little Jimmy might excel once he starts using a behavior tracker. But the more common reality is that Gabriela will still show agonizingly slow progress despite various interventions.
This holds true not only for individual students but also for the educational fads that periodically sweep through the profession. Even initiatives backed by substantial research, like the Common Core, have an intimidating number of question marks surrounding their effectiveness—especially when you talk about scalability. 45 states cutting across enormous cultural, economic, and demographic lines have adopted the standards. If there’s one thing to expect, it’s the unexpected. Certainly not any magic bullets.
There is a lot of uncomfortable racial imagery going on in the corridors of onscreen schools. Dead Poets’ Society leaves me feeling like punching every prep school graduate I see for being as twee and lily-white as a Belle & Sebastian concert.
Oh man, but those inner-city ones. I have worked in urban schools for my whole adult career, including at a high school where assaults on students and teachers did happen with some frequency. But, really, classes full of gun-brandishing thugs ready to fistfight at the drop of a hat? Freedom Writers opens with a shoot-out between students on the way to school. A student checks his gun beneath a desk within the first two minutes of Lean on Me. Even 1955’s Blackboard Jungle depicts a student pulling a switchblade on a teacher.
It would be a huge step forward if we could conceive of the people in our education system—students, teachers, families, administrators—as human rather than cartoonish media representations or, perhaps worse, mere data points. Policies not only have human consequences but they are also implemented by humans—invariably flawed, often self-seeking, sometimes incompetent humans. It’s humans all the way down. The language we use should reflect this and not carelessly cede ground to abstractions like “African-American males” or “the lowest-third percentile” or even “teachers unions.” This is an acknowledgment that idealized categories, run amok, can in fact short-circuit the hard work of ensuring each individual student, in their individual family context, neighborhood, and cultural background, receives a high-quality education.