To reform education, no quick fix exists

by Hunter Harris / Beacon Staff • November 7, 2013

It’s an oft-repeated saying in my dad’s house, one that he finds a way to work into almost every conversation: “The most important decisions in our lives,” he says, “are not made by us.” When I thought about it more, this offhand aphorism felt truer and truer — no one chooses their parents, family, financial status, gender, or race. These decisions, critical to the rest of our lives, are left to chance.

As politicians — both in Boston and on the national stage — set goals and present plans to reform broken educational systems, this is a truth that must be kept in mind. All too often, the disparity of wealth and opportunity in the United States allows a progressive, meaningful education to be a luxury of the privileged.

The most sinister aspect of privilege of any sort — racial, gender, economic, or otherwise— is that it’s difficult to see and grasp the benefits of the privileges you enjoy. It can be challenging to make conservative men understand the benefits of government-funded contraception for women who can’t afford pricey birth control pills. Likewise, a previous professor expressed frustration in response to a dismissal of the practice of female gender mutilation voiced by an unknowingly ethnocentric classmate.

Similarly, until I worked as a teacher in a Children’s Defense Fund Freedom School (a nonprofit born of the Civil Rights Movement, dedicated to providing quality education for at-risk and nonwhite students) over the summer, I could not understand the dearth of quality education available to many American children, all of whom deserve better. Without a firsthand look at the smart eight-year-old in a failing school or the single parent who worked too many hours to ensure their children received the best teachers, the presence of education inequality and the necessity of education reform wasn’t tangible to me.

Though solutions are suggested, many of them are too single-minded or short-sighted to fix an increasingly complex problem. There’s no quick fix to repair the decades of oversight and structural inequalities that have made a worthwhile public school educational experience hard to come by.

Resolutions for the failing educational system in Boston and nationally are plentiful. Teach for America boasts large numbers of recent graduates making a two-year commitment to, according to the program’s website, “raise student achievement in public schools.” The Obama administration approved the Common Core Standards Initiative in an attempt to create a nationalized criterion to ensure that all American students have identical tools to succeed, where students in Maine and Hawaii learn from identical lessons. The 2010 documentary Waiting for Superman outed teacher tenure as a central antagonist to improving public school systems, and Boston mayor-elect Martin Walsh has publicly endorsed lifting the cap on charter schools.

All in all, there is one key, though abstract, component in education reform that has been ignored and which makes these “one solution” approaches all the more ineffectual. Just as privilege breeds privilege, disadvantage breeds disadvantage. A middle school in a school district occupied by families that make under $50,000 a year obviously doesn’t reap the same tax benefits as one in a district where multi-wing mansions are the norm. When many Ivy League students are legacies of the schools they attend, fewer spots are left for students born to parents who weren’t already privileged with a world-class education — or any education at all. Descendants of slaves, immigrants, or others for whom a good education was made purposely unavailable are at a structural disadvantage, the ramifications of which are still being felt today. This is one of many examples of fundamental inequalities that younger teachers or standardized tests cannot begin to fix. A solution that has any hope of being successful must be comprehensive; changing a single aspect of the educational system cannot fix the persistent institutional troubles that hinder system-wide results. 

While a public school education for early childhood through 12th grade may be available to all in theory, in practice there are serious and harmful discrepancies in the quality. A great education should be available to those that need it the most, not just to classes and communities that already enjoy its privileges.