The Question of Education

With the new reports of cheating among administrators in the Atlanta school district, I can’t help but shake my head. That’s right, administrators in the Atlanta school district have (allegedly) falsified standardized testing scores in order to maintain job security and ensure performance-based bonuses.

The scandal actually makes me think of the free class my co-worker and I are teaching for underprivileged students from rougher neighborhoods. (we’re not cheating–I swear) Instead we hoping to boost their SAT scores enough so they have the chance to get into a four year university. Tomorrow is our last class, and I know I’m going to miss these kids! Still, I have to admit these kids don’t stand a chance. Our company teaches us: “don’t bother teaching them vocabulary. At this point you can’t change it.” I grew up in a family where words like “invalidate” and “perpetual” were normal parts of dinner conversation, so naturally I know what they mean. For these kids, the SAT writers might has well be using German when they write sentences with “rhetorical” and “trivial.” If you have drug addicted or even under-educated parents, you’re going to inherit their limited vocabularies. On top of that, if you go to an under-funded inner city school, how are you going to pick up a more sophisticated vocab?

Atlanta administrators have certainly picked up on the difficulty of boosting scores among lower-income students. If you constantly interact with educated people who speak with wide vocabularies and correct grammar, then you’re constantly preparing for these standardized tests. Meanwhile, students from lower income families are more likely to spend their rime with uneducated people–they only contact correct grammar in school. This is such a basic but real barrier to success for these students.

I see the kids I’m teaching pick up on concepts quickly; they learn whatever I teach them; but we’re just starting from too low a level to compete with equally intelligent students from the richer end of town. The low income students will just score lower. it’s sad but true. In a world where standardized testing becomes more important by the day, individuals’ intelligence is compressed into a set of numbers that cannot assess intellectual capacity outside of vocabulary, grammar rules, and math equations. These kids don’t stand a chance.

Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that schools across the country are resorting to cutting days and hours off the school year to make ends meet. With less time in school, how are underprivileged students, already left behind, supposed to get up to speed?

These Atlanta school administrators may have been giving in to very real pressures, but they are letting down the students. At the end of the day we at least need to be honest about the discrepancy so that we can address it. Covering it with a quick band-aid and a “pass” stamp only compounds the problem. I don’t think I have a satisfactory solution to propose or real problem to attack. Instead I just feel grateful–grateful but guilty. Although I worked hard in high school, the more time I spend in my hometown, the more I see that my ability and determination to achieve was as dependent on my socio-economic circumstance as it was dependent on me.