In a fairly recent New Yorker article Arne Duncan told the following story:
Once, when Duncan was in high school, a basketball star he knew from Sue’s came to him for help in studying for the A.C.T. test. “He was being recruited by some big places,” Duncan said. “He was thinking Marquette, something like that. And we say down, and he couldn’t read. He was a B student at Martin Luther King. This was the year they won the state championship. He was a good kid. He stayed clear of gangs, drugs; his teachers liked him. He did everything right, everything that was asked of him, and he was functionally illiterate. It wasn’t his fault. He’d been lied to all his life. We had a heart-to-heart talk, and I had to tell him. And he didn’t make it. He went to junior college, but he didn’t make it.”
Lied to his entire life. Hmm. By who? While Duncan does not explicitly tell us who lied to this student, from his other speeches and Race to the Top legislation I think it is safe to say he understands teachers as having lied to this student. Who else but a liar could give a B to a functionally illiterate student? Most bluntly, educational failure stems from a moral failure on the part of teachers. Listen to Rod Paige, former President Bush’s secretary of education talking about the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” Go watch the infomerical “Waiting for Superman.” Technically and morally bankrupt teachers are systematically spoiling children’s futures. Makes perfect sense so long as you don’t spend any time inside a struggling school.
If you do and bother to talk to teachers or even try to teach yourself, the simple moral calculus around bad teachers lying to students quickly becomes quite messy. Imagine you have a class full of seniors, most of whom run the gamut in terms of their academic skills, ranging from on grade to no grade reading levels. You scratch your head and try to figure out how a student could get all the way to high school functionally illiterate, and decide that his former teachers dropped the ball and never picked it up. Makes sense, but here’s the catch- you cannot just point fingers, you actually have to do something.
You have thirty eighteen or nineteen year old students who have navigated a defunct educational system and cannot wait to graduate. Many need serious remedial academic support, which your inner-city high school has on paper but not in practice. You have no reading specialists, no special education support, nothing. Most of your students are in various states of academic disrepair, making your job of teaching students to write persuasive essays not just difficult but impossible. To top it all off your principal has made it known that that failing too many kids means the teacher is failing to teach the kids. This makes sense when you realize his rating is based on student promotion and graduation rates. With this in mind what do you do?
Here lies the teacher trap. Address students where they are at and try to move them along and you have become the problem, the soft bigot with low expectations, the liar. You have “dumbed it down” because, and only because, you believe your students are dumb.
So instead you teach what you are mandated to teach. But trying to teach students who cannot read how to write a persuasive essay borders on the absurd, as the students do not have the requisite skills to do this and you do not have the time or resources to bring them up to speed. You used to believe the magical thinking of movies like “Stand and Deliver” about an inspirational math teacher who got all of his effectively innumerate inner-city students to pass the AP math exam in a single year. Like many teachers you learned the hard way that this movie is based on a true story rather than the truth. You learned it is a lie that has become the truth because as a society we desperately want to believe it because it simplifies school failure (bad teachers) and by doing so absolves anyone outside of the school of guilt or blame. Now you are inside of a school, seeing the other side of a myth that now frames you as a liar.
I do not know of any teachers who went into teaching to lie to kids. I do know many who confront situations in struggling schools where there is no right answer, just different degrees of wrong. Working in a failing school means becoming complicit in school failure, and as such an easy societal scapegoat for it. But what if the lie is bigger than teachers? Bigger than school? What if it is as big as our society? What if schools are doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing by making massive social inequality look like moral failure? What about the economic and social structures we live in? What if teachers less lie than live in lies, and in doing so get stuck holding the bag for creating social inequality?
Returning to Arne Duncan’s “lied to” student with these questions in mind, I ask: Who did not lie to this student?