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On classroom contradictions, magical thinking, and the barriers students face outside of school

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Christopher Mah
Imagine two high schools, both serving students from poverty-impacted communities. School A is a traditional district school in a decaying brick building that holds nearly a thousand students from the surrounding neighborhoods, who take a standard course load of literature, science, math, and history. Nearly all of their teachers are brand new or inexperienced. Day after week after month, students wait for a bell to release them to their next class, like factory workers changing shifts. Like many other schools, School A faces significant financial headwinds as enrollment declines and funding streams slow to a trickle. As red ink accumulates, School A takes painful measures. One year, it eliminates crucial support staff; the following year, class sizes double; the next, the arts department is cut entirely. Student behavior deteriorates, and academic performance follows suit.

At School B, the situation looks very different. Despite serving a similar student population, School B, a charter school, enjoys growing enrollment (as families unhappy with School A seek alternatives) and a remodeled building with open floor plans and a neatly manicured football field. Students wear khaki pants and navy vests, take quarterly field trips to college campuses, and engage in Problem-Based Learning using school-provided tablets. Unlike School A, School B is able to direct most of its dollars into the classroom rather than spending it on administrative overhead. It can more easily supplement its budgets with grants, foundation money, and private donations. Relative to School A, School B sees material improvement in test scores, graduation rates, and college acceptance rates.

Although I am still early in my teaching career, I have taught, trained, and observed in my share of both School A’s and School B’s. And despite what one might expect, this essay is not simply a ringing endorsement for the School B’s of the world. Nor is it a call to pour more money into schools like School A (although no educator would object). Rather, it is a critique of the social structures that allow conditions like those in School A to become normalized.

Identical challenges: poverty, racism, trauma

Despite their differences, both schools serve kids with identical challenges: poverty, racism, trauma, and their attendant consequences. The hard reality teachers must swallow is that these factors are more predictive of student outcomes than our instruction. And while the School B’s of the world often do outperform its School A’s, the point is not that the former are better than the latter; it is that we have constructed an economic system that denies our most vulnerable families access to jobs, health care, and housing, and then collectively scratch our heads wondering why the achievement gap widens with each generation, particularly in districts with lots of School A’s.

Educators deal with contradictions every day. We must give one kid the personal attention they need while teaching a hundred more; we must teach an increasingly standardized curriculum in nonstandard ways; and we must perpetually walk the tightrope between meeting kids where they’re at and holding them to a high academic bar. But perhaps the central contradiction we hold is this: We must believe wholeheartedly that our work can transform society, and we must believe wholeheartedly that our work alone cannot transform society. The two beliefs are equally important. Absent the former, our work is rendered futile. Without an unshakeable belief in the importance of her work, a teacher dooms her students to a life of economic immobility and intellectual stagnation. But absent the latter, we fall victim to magical thinking, the idea that if kids just work hard enough, they can overcome poverty and racism; that if teachers just work hard enough, they can undo centuries of white supremacy, 50 minutes at a time.

A useful tool, but …

Magical thinking can be a useful tool; it can push individuals to do magical things. But it does not scale well. And while scale may not matter to the teenage mother trying to qualify for college scholarships, or to the homeless student fighting for his livelihood, it matters a great deal once you zoom out and consider the thousands just like them all over Minnesota. To move one child out of poverty, it takes an extraordinary amount of time, resources, and luck. To move thousands in a single school building, it takes a proverbial alignment of the stars. When we subscribe to magical thinking, we let administrators off the hook for making sound financial and ethical decisions; we let policymakers off the hook for writing and enforcing equitable policies; we let law enforcement off the hook for protecting and serving our most vulnerable children; we let corporations off the hook for paying their fair share; and we let our neighbors off the hook for holding those entities accountable when they fail in their duties.

We should not stop fighting to turn around the School A’s of the world, nor should we stop trying to learn from the School B’s. But if we do so without removing our blinders to the barriers kids face outside of school, we resign ourselves to upholding the status quo, and no amount of magical thinking can change that.

Christopher Mah teaches high school language arts in South Minneapolis.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 12/10/2018 - 12:26 pm.

    We have to teach the kids who show up at the door.

  2. Submitted by Pat Terry on 12/10/2018 - 12:27 pm.

    What a dishonest piece. The schools don’t serve kids with identical challenges. That could not be further from the truth. And charter schools do not outperform traditional schools, even with the advantage of picking and choosing their students.

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