I got my master’s degree from a well-regarded graduate school of education in 1966. I spent the following 41 years in secondary school and community college classrooms teaching physics, chemistry, and computer science. I still write about education.
I have serious concerns about the present efforts in education—especially urban education. In the more than half century since I got my master’s degree, very little has changed. Results from urban education systems may actually be worse now. That should have alarms sounding, klaxons blaring, warning lights flashing, and every other possible alert activated in every graduate school of education.
How can there still be students arriving at high school unable to read? How can Baltimore public schools happen? What about all the books written, papers published, programs developed, conferences held, people trained, money spent? Why do problems still exist? Why have things gone so horribly wrong?
In the years since 1966, education policy has wandered off in some odd directions. Remember Ebonics? Policies now may be off onto the strangest path ever. There is a new orthodoxy that blames all failures and problems on “white supremacy” and pervasive “systemic racism.”
This clearly totally devalues the efforts of all the people who followed me out of various graduate programs. There were hundreds and hundreds who went out into school systems everywhere and gave their best. Sincere efforts were made. Some tears were shed. Are we to believe that these efforts were all wasted and destined for failure? That idea is mistaken at best, and may be delusional. I know that I am being heretical, speaking in opposition to current orthodox beliefs, but I feel compelled to speak out. I fear no cancellation. At my age (80), the only real cancellation that can come for me is the final one that comes for us all. I would like to offer ideas for new directions educators should explore.
Let me explain the genesis of these ideas. I graduated in 1965 with a BS in chemistry and physics minor, and decided to go into education as a socially responsible career. I needed education courses to qualify for teaching certification, so I went after an MS in education. It turned out that the best (and really only) course that prepared me for student teaching in a large city school system was an extra course I took in cultural anthropology.
That course made me realize that I was going into a different culture—urban teenagers—and I needed to be aware of their customs and values. I could see the highest value was given to personal respect, and perceptions of disrespect always led to problems. I made it clear to every class I had that I would treat everyone with respect and expected respect in return. I never had a serious problem. Mutual respect worked.
I think the principles of sociology and cultural anthropology need to be applied to urban education. If education is not valued, all programs will fail. If students see nothing to be gained from education, nothing will make it work for them. The urban culture—the value system—must be changed so that education is seen to be worth the effort. Education must always be active, not passive. Education is not given, it must be achieved. A model for how effective this is can be seen in any school by checking the music program and the athletic program. In these programs, you will always find amazing results because of the active involvement of students.
I would also like to take the time to clearly demonstrate the ignorance of racism. Albert Einstein used to describe what he called “thought experiments” to work through his ideas. Here’s a “thought experiment” about racism. Suppose we borrow some samples from medical school dissections. Imagine three human brains displayed on separate trays—one Asian, one Caucasian, and one African American. If they were not labeled, no one—no one—could tell them apart. Perhaps blood work or DNA analysis could decide which was which, but as far as appearance and general components, they would be indistinguishable. The same thing would be true for three human hearts. Clearly, all are linked by a common humanity, and all racial differences are purely external, and matter no more than different colors of eyes, different heights, or any other external characteristics. Clearly, racism is pure ignorance. This leads to another conclusion. All differences in educational performance between different racial groups must be entirely due to external causes. These causes are cultural, and without considering them, no educational reform can ever succeed.
If real change is to come, it would be appropriate to create an educational Manhattan Project, bringing together the best minds in education, sociology, psychology, etc., to address the problems with input from all disciplines. It should be done with no limits on ideas to be explored and no political bias. Present efforts in education focus on “equity” as a goal. Equity is not a product—it is a characteristic of the result of a functioning education system. Equity is like reliability. No company manufactures reliability. They produce products with reliability and adjust their processes to make sure that happens. If our education system works properly, equitable outcomes will be a result. Equity cannot simply be imposed.
In conclusion, it’s obvious that something different needs to be done, or there will be a 2023 graduate from some education program writing in 2080, wondering why nothing had changed. Imagine the talent that has been lost since I graduated in 1966. Let’s not lose any more.
Eugene E. Nalence Pennsylvania