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Light Up the Bat Signal Over the Suburbs

Let’s be honest, when people talk about the so-called “crisis in American education,” as most recently brought to the public eye through Education Nation, what people are really talking about is a crisis in urban education. The majority of Americans live in the suburbs, and most are quite content with the education their children receive. Despite all its problems, the one thing I will grant “Waiting for ‘Superman'” without reservation is that it challenges the notion that suburban schools serve all of their students well. So while Geoffrey Canada waits for Superman to save our cities, we need a “Commissioner Gordon” to light up the bat signal over the suburbs, because if there is a crisis in education, it extends to all public schools that fail to be the equalizing mechanism democracy requires.

I started my career teaching in one of Washington, D.C.,’s more privileged suburbs. I took a job there because I was excited by the opportunity to teach a school with a truly diverse population both in terms of race and class. About a third of my students were living in McMansions, and a third lived in working-class apartments. A third of my students had parents in active military service. The school was also split fairly evenly among white, black, and Latino students, with a number of South and Southeastern Asian students as well. Having student-taught in both urban and suburban parts of Rhode Island, I thought this D.C.-area school would be a good place to start my career.

What I found there should be the starting point of a national crisis. I taught four sections of “Honors” World History 9. Each section had 20-24 students. In total between the four sections, I had two black students and zero Latino students. In my “regular,” non-honors section, I had as many as 35 students, three-quarters of whom were black or Latino. And without a doubt, my five most intelligent students were in my “regular” section. Throughout the school, the most experienced teachers taught the small honors and Advanced Placement classes, while the new teachers were nearly all on the large regular sections. I was assigned honors classes only because of my selective-college degree.

Was the distribution of students the result of racist teachers putting the students and administrators on different tracks? Of course not. What actually happened removed any responsibility from any individual for the racist and classist differences that existed. Any student could self-select into an honors course. This meant that nearly all the students who lived in the McMansions and whose parents were military officers “chose” honors with the push and support of their parents. Nearly all the working-class students and the children of enlisted military men and women, those who were largely students of color and whose parents worked longer hours and had less time to be involved in helping with homework and other school matters, “chose” to take the regular classes. When I would ask my top “regular” students why they didn’t take honors classes, they always responded that they wanted to be with their friends or they didn’t want to be the sole black or Latino person in their classes.

I refused to acknowledge the differences, and actually taught the same challenging history course to all my students. Students in my honors classes completed more homework and tended to do better on multiple-choice exams; however, without exception, my “regular” students always did better with tasks requiring higher-level, critical thinking. These students told me regularly that I was the only teacher who did anything with them other than worksheets, the only one who asked them to think, and in many cases, the only one who had ever told them they were smart. Through the magic of Facebook, many of those students, now college students, enlisted servicemen and women, or high-school dropouts, have gotten in touch with me in the past couple years, to thank me for being the only teacher they had who believed in them.

There is a very large difference between what society hopes of me in the Bronx and what was expected of me in the D.C. suburbs. In the Bronx, I work with all students, both brilliant and recent immigrants who read at a 2nd grade level, to help them to become more critical citizens, deeper thinkers, and better readers and writers, while ensuring they can all pass the New York State Regents exam in history at the end of my course in order to graduate high school. The work that I, and thousands of other teachers, do every day is nothing less than transformative.

The expectations in the suburbs were far less. There, I only had to keep my “honors” students on the path they were already on, and no one really seemed to care too much what happened to the “regular” students. Given the disparity in class size and experience of teachers, it was clear the expectation was that they too merely be kept on the path they were already on, regardless of where that took them. Those children were, all too often, left behind. If we really are in the midst of a national dialogue on education, let’s then make sure to take a real good look at all schools, and fight to ensure that all schools give all students the opportunity to transform their selves, rather than just keeping them on the path they were already on.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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