How Much Can Schools Control?

One of the great debates in education for the past (who knows how many) years is this:  How much can schools really control?

We Americans are ambivalent about schools.  We don’t want our kids in school for a whole year, don’t want them studying too much, but we also believe that education is the silver bullet for a host of societal problems.  We tend to agree with Mark Twain: “I never let my schooling get in the way of my education.” But we also put schools front and center of the debate whenever we’re feeling anxious about whether we’re still the top country in the world.

We don’t want too much school, but we do believe school can change everything.

A lot of our politicians see schools not just as a silver bullet but as a quick fix.  Too much urban poverty?  We just need better schools to teach better skills so kids get better jobs).  Too much obesity?  Get those kids eating better school lunches and moving around more in gym.  American democracy is fraying?  Teach those kids some civics!  For politicians, schools are at least a lever they can control.  It’s much easier to call for education reform in a city than it is to address the wider, amorphous underlying societal problems.  One writer I admire, a former teacher, once wrote something akin to, “A Common Core set of national education standards is fine, but I want a Common Core of three solid meals for each child every day.” Poverty, physical health, fraying democracy . . . those are huge and intractable issues, blurry and obscured and tied up closely with even deeper problems (like race and class) . . .  and progress is slow-going, incremental.  Much easier to call for ed reform than . . . whatever that other stuff is.

So here’s where it gets tricky for educators.  We got into this profession because we KNOW it can make a difference.  In fact, we know it can be THE difference.  So in a way, we like it when our society puts schools at the heart of the debate about societal reform.  We want to believe that we ARE the silver bullet.

But we’re also painfully aware of what we’re up against.  Teaching is an endless job, and the process of becoming a professional teacher is, in some way, a process of making peace with the idea that you can’t help them all.  In fact, you might only be able to really help one or two of them a year.  Or you might not be able to truly help any of them as deeply as you’d like — because even one or two can take up so much of your time and energy that you won’t be able to help the 124 others.  Or you’ll burn out.  You’ll wash up somewhere a year or two down the road (it often doesn’t take very long) sitting in your classroom, utterly depleted and disheartened, filling out applications to law schools.  This happens over and over and over to young teachers.  I’ve seen it.  The ranks of my own grad school class have thinned from the profession.  It’s an endless job.  There is always more you could be doing, and if you’re someone who cares at all, you’ll go through every day of teaching with a painful awareness of this, watching every day, as hurt kid after hurt kid files in and out of your classroom without getting enough of your help.  If you stay in the game long enough, you’ll see them graduate like this too, year after year after year.

I think about this a lot.  I think about it every time I hear someone talk about “equity” — the new buzzword in education.  Equity means giving each person what they need.  This implies that we can give anyone what they need.  Apart from a privileged few, I’m not so sure.

Sometimes you try to help a kid, you put yourself out there, maybe even devote a lot of yourself to one kid, and they throw it back in your face.  Sometimes the parent does it too (with or without the kid on board).  This is no reason to desist, but I’d be lying if I said that these experiences don’t take a toll.

Sometimes you pour so much of yourself into a child that you’re sure you’re making a difference, only to see that child start skipping school, or get pregnant at 17, or develop a drug problem, or not follow through on college applications and then just sort of slide into the kind of economic struggle and disenfranchisement you’d hoped to lift them out of.

This is especially true I think if you teach high school.  Sometimes I think that in ninth grade, the potential for all students still feels wide open.  Sometime around the end of tenth grade and the start of the eleventh, that same potential can start to feel more and more closed off.  You feel how powerful is the gravity of whatever home life they have.  It pulls them back in.  I didn’t appreciate this when I first started teaching.  Teachers hear kids tell them about their dreams, especially young teachers who, because they are new and because they are often open to these experiences, tend to bring out those “fresh start” confessions in kids.  I heard a lot about poor Vermont farm kids who wanted to be doctors or writers when I first began teaching.  I thought, “Here I am, making these dreams come true.” But a few years later, you see these kids working in convenience stores, or having their own children, totally unprepared, and you realize that you weren’t the only one educating them.

Other times, you don’t even think you’re reaching out or doing anything that special, and some kid you had a few years ago contacts you out of the blue to tell you about what a difference you made for him.  This happens too, if you teach long enough.

You just don’t know.

All this adds up to the mixed feelings we teachers have about education’s power.  We are at once in awe of our effect, but also painfully aware of our own limitations.

For people who are helpers by nature, it’s a weird position to be in.  Nobody holds doctors responsible for the country’s unhealthy eating habits.  Nobody holds lawyers responsible when there’s more crime.  Our effects are hard to measure.  Whenever we teachers hear about increased test scores, we laugh.  Test scores don’t tell you anything meaningful, particularly if they’ve been prepared for at the expense of real learning.  Whenever we hear about the great schools in Denmark, we say, sure, but tell us about the broader societal context.  What are their social supports for hunger, poverty, and discrimination?  Whenever we see “miracle” charter schools, we wait for the other shoe to drop.

As teachers, we want to feel important, and we know that we are, but we also understand that we’re just one piece of a much larger puzzle — one that holds no easy answer to piece together, and one for which our skill of assembly is hard to measure.

All this adds up to it being hard for teachers to ward off outsiders who proclaim that we aren’t doing well, that we need Higher Standards, or Better Methods, or even Better Teachers.  We hear all this and we listen to it — much more than we should, often — because we’re genuinely aware of how much better we could be doing.  It doesn’t matter if our state is dramatically underfunded.  We are self-critical people.  We think, “Well, I could be giving up my planning period, or working weekends.”

It’s hard for us to make the argument that, “no, we don’t need Dramatic Bar-Raising Exercise X because we really don’t have that big of an effect on kids anyway compared to the wider society or to their parents.” You can’t say that.  It sounds like an abdication of responsibility.  And it’s a self-defeating argument to make for people who NEED to get up in the morning and believe that we can change lives, that every kid has a chance.  You have to wake up thinking that way, because otherwise this job is impossible.  Without that optimism, that basic faith in each kid getting a shot through education, you’ll never be able to push through.

It’s hard to hold those two contradictory ideas at once.  But that is the tension that all teachers live with:  How much do we control?

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