Armchair Quarterbacks

December 4, 2010

A recent Feministe thread on education has me irked, yet again, by the way education debates usually seem to go. Why is it that we defer to experts on so many other topics, and yet so many Americans seem to think their opinion on education trumps all merely by virtue of having once been educated themselves? Hey, I fly on lots of airplanes–how come Boeing hasn’t hired me as a consultant yet?

I understand that we all want to use our personal experience to make sense of the world. And I realize that I’m not yet a parent, so I don’t have a parental point of view on what it’s like to send a kid through school. But I’m tired of the opinions of educators–those of us who are actually in schools and communities, fighting for better resources for children and young adults–constantly being shouted down by amateur education reform scholars.

Education is underfunded. If you look at the amount we’re shelling out for national security and defense versus education, our priorities are severely out of whack. The US ranks second in GDP purchasing power parity in the world, but it currently ranks 46th in education spending as a portion of total GDP–behind some of the usual characters, like the UK and the Netherlands, but also behind such nations as Cuba and Lesotho.

Educational funding is also seriously inequitable. The same neighborhoods and communities who find themselves shorted on municipal services, police and fire support, and social services are often the very same ones fighting to keep their schools open and adequately funded. Look at the proposed school closures and mergers for an urban district like Boston Public Schools, then try overlaying with crime data (PDF) from those same areas. Hint: Dorchester is District C, just as one starting point.

But beyond that, education is undervalued and maligned as a profession. Whenever individual school unions make unpopular choices, all educational unions–often all teachers–are demonized. When individual public schools and districts fail to meet benchmarks, the successes of other schools–yes, even inner-city public schools–are dismissed. The perceived power of some metropolitan teachers’ unions lead outsiders to paint teachers (and organized labor) with broad strokes. We’re in it for the money. We don’t care about students. We’re making outrageous demands.

All of this demonization also ignores the very real struggles teachers face in the classroom (and wherever educators may work). Although the profession is still perceived as female-dominated, the narrative of female teachers and male administrators is still sadly alive and well–including in many of our graduate programs. Male teachers, meanwhile, particularly at the lower levels, still face social stigma thanks to the sensationalized threat of sexual predators in classrooms. All of us who work with so-called “troubled” youth have to wade through self-perpetuating narratives of underperformance, not to mention ignorance among parents, colleagues and community members about issues like learning disabilities and mental illness.

Those of you who don’t work in education might have the luxury of throwing up your hands and declaring the system broken. But those of us who are educators can’t, and don’t, do that. We go to work every day, and we bring our jobs home with us every afternoon (or night). Not because we’re getting glory, or money, or power, or fame–because we love what we do, and because we believe in a better world for our students. We are building it with our hearts and minds and hands every day.

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