Monday, November 15, 2010

Education & Inequalities

The last three weeks have been difficult ones for me as an educator. I am now in my fourteenth year of teaching. A rough estimate of the number of students I have interacted with in my classes totals somewhere in the 2500’s. I do not consider myself, therefore, na├»ve to the struggles concerning education. However, all fourteen of my years have been confined to Colorado schools along the Front Range; furthermore, of the six institutions I have taught in, four of them are institutions of higher education; one is a small K-12 private school; and the last one is a public charter school. While I knew inequalities in education existed, that knowledge was always abstract. I now realize my abstract idea of the inequalities between institutions of education in America was sorely inaccurate. What I have not yet come to terms with is why those inequalities exist to the degree that they apparently do. This intellectual hurdle then, will serve as the “new fact” by which I attempt to support or negate the “old ideas” of Marx, Weber and Mills.

Karl Marx, Max Weber, and C.Wright Mills
“There is, even today, a ‘hidden’ population living more miserably than Americans are able to appreciate . . . . Behind the work of Marx was the driving animus of a desire to comprehend the inhumanity of people toward other people” (Cuzzort and King, 2002, pg. 270).

This is how Cuzzort and King choose to open their section on Marx, and it seems particularly fitting to borrow. Let’s begin with the examination of Marx’s idea concerning the separation of surplus wealth as it pertains to the discussion of the current state of our schools. At the state level, there is a per pupil distribution of surplus wealth. In addition to this distribution, there is also the additional taxation of property within districts. Taxation is a form of “legal force” to obtain the necessary monetary needs of a school district. And yet, it is also an optional application of legal forceful procedure in that members of a community may vote on that taxation. The higher the property taxes of a given area, the more surplus wealth the community will have to collect. This provides an intellectual reason for why inequalities may exist. Highly-populated affluent areas will have more to give than do sparsely and/or low-economic areas.

As Cuzzort and King suggest, this intellectual reasoning is without moral judgment. It is rather a working explanation of how the current inequities may have come into being. Now let’s complicate the matter with Weber’s ideas concerning bureaucracy. Some education theorists suggest that bureaucracy within the education system itself is partly to blame for the disproportionate distribution of wealth and resources between schools. Weber might say that school officials make a habit of siding with “the interests of the bureaucracy rather than the interests either of the individual or of the broader moral issues” (Cuzzort and King, 2002, pg.251). Teacher unions might be characterized as just such a bureaucracy. It is obvious to see why teacher unions came to be and to what purpose they were meant to serve. However, they have evolved into an operating body which too often makes decisions that favor the idealized structure of the educational organization with little or no contemplation of individual factors or the larger moral implications of its actions. It is difficult to fire bad tenured teachers. Nearly impossible, in fact. When teacher unions back all tenured teachers regardless of individual performance they unjustly, and even immorally, jeopardize the schools as a whole. Inequalities between schools have to do with more than just facilities and resources—but with teachers as well. Well-funded districts attract a competitive workforce. Poorly-funded districts often have the misfortune of inheriting the non-competitive leftovers.

And finally, we must come to the contemplation of Mills theory of “status panic.” Given that we have the public educational structure we do, community members are well aware of which schools have the best reputations, and therefore, carry with them the highest prestige as we decorate our bumpers with slogans such as: My student is an Honor Student at Such-And-Such High. Of course, we all know that achieving honor-roll status at “Such-And-Such High” is much more desirable than achieving honor-roll status at say “So-And-So High.” Members of a community may inherit their “prestige from the capacity to identify” their neighborhood school as one “that does, in fact, have recognition,” thereby achieving a kind of status glow “from the real or imagined associations of [the] white-collar workers” whose children dominate the school (Cuzzort and King, 2002, pg. 370). And there we have it. Society itself reinforces the need for the inequalities so that we can satisfy our own misguided “status panic,” because elimination of those inequalities may just result in a kind of “profound disillusionment” whereby we would no longer be capable of discerning the value of our work against that of the blue-collar workers whose children are resigned to their own neighborhood schools.

Granted this refection is ending in a tone of anger not unlike that of Mills; however, I do not believe we can end there. Acknowledgment of the how’s and why’s ought to become the necessary means for synthesis, leading to a new state, using Marx’s theory of the dialectic. Thesis is the current state—creating its own antithesis (a growing population of concerned citizens who see the current state of educational affairs as unjust). We can only hope.