A friend of mine told me about a recent date night, where he had a delicious two-hour long conversation about inequality, education, and economics.
After my initial enthusiastic remarks about how great it was he’d found someone who would engage in a conversation like this, I thought for a second and realized that the idea of having such a conversation didn’t appeal to me like it would have two years ago.
Because I was practically fired? Maybe. Because I burned out on two years of teaching? Probably more than I’d like to admit. But mostly because the whole landscape of education feels so gross and entangled and just plain hard to wrap my mind around. I’m surrounded by people who know this beast like it’s their little brother—their little brother who they just realized they don’t actually know as a person. We don’t have the newness or propensity for ideas we used to have, and conversations I have about the achievement gap have stopped going anywhere.
Tonight, though, less than a week after that realization—get this—I talked for two hours about the achievement gap.
What was different?
I was talking to someone who knows very little about TFA but is familiar with my school district. She is new to the world of education but was genuinely searching for real ways to conceptualize its problems. She was also very patient, and gave me a lot of space to let my ideas meander a while before they started to make sense.
I doubt that two twenty-something ladies with less than five years of experience between them came up with THE PROBLEM with education in our nation in a two-hour discussion, but it felt about as significant.
We talked about this three-headed monster terrorizing the field of education in the US: one head is the fact that we just don’t seem to know what works to turn around low-performing public schools. The second head, a cause of the first, is this nonsensical jargon-y world we live in, the verbal box-checking we do in conversations with other teachers or with administrators, saying SAT problems = “high expectations” or that two versions of a worksheet = “differentiating instruction.” The third head, a cause of the second, is this deep fear and insecurity we have as educators. Nothing’s working for our kids, we’re worried about being judged or called “bad teachers,” we’re worried about our schools or our jobs, and we just don’t trust each other enough to be vulnerable and talk honestly about our shortcomings as educators.
We talked about what “at-risk” means, and what saying those words does to a conversation with school administrators. It’s a code word, a booby trap trying to get them to give away their “low expectations,” which would be a huge no-no. But it’s also representative of this extra hump, this activation energy some kids have to overcome before they can ever benefit from that shiny project-based curriculum. It’s the mountain kids show they’ve already crested when they apply for great charter schools, when they show up at the school doors knowing that education is THE THING they need. In a school, it’s also what turns the hard science of teaching, where variables like good lessons and great curricula lead conclusively to student learning, into an unpredictable messy art that you can’t prescribe, that you have to learn by doing, that might be considered “good” except that it now depends how you measure “good.”
What’s important about these concepts isn’t that they’re perfect analogies (they aren’t) or that I’ve finally captured the essence and heart of the Gap (I haven’t). The significance of these images is that they EXIST. I can, did, have a real conversation informed by my two years that wasn’t just me complaining about my work environment.
I might talk about needing to distance myself from this problem to heal, but it’s nice to know I can still look at this behemoth head-on and think interesting things about it.