Walter Bond, a managing director with Teach For America Milwaukee, posits that the educational system should tackle injustice and economic inequality and inspire children to be dedicated to tearing down systems of oppression.
As a former high school teacher and administrator, I’ve spent countless hours learning how to transform lives through classroom leadership. And with the help of lots of school leaders, professors, veteran educators, parents, community leaders and students, I’m proud to say I was a pretty successful teacher. By every objective measure — reading growth, grades, test scores, college admission, and now even college completion — my students produced incredible results. And while such results came with many memorable moments and lots of praise, it took several years and a lot of maturity for me to realize that for all of our successes, I was still missing the mark. Every day. Because there was more I should have been measuring.
I didn’t understand that teaching (well) is, and must be, a revolutionary act. Perhaps more important than all of the aforementioned measures are the kind of people my students became, how they understood the world around them and how equipped they were to change that world so that students after them could experience a more equitable plight.
Like other American urban landscapes, there’s a familiar education narrative we expose our students to here in Milwaukee as a way to avoid the pitfalls of our system. Go to school, work hard, achieve academically, showcase those achievements in some norm-based manner, go to college, graduate, better situate yourself for a career where you can out-earn your peers who didn’t follow this formula and live a good life. This method is tried and true for families who have access to excellent schools, and it’s even what I was told as a youngster trying to traverse the Milwaukee Public Schools system.
And you know what? It’s true — sort of.
Let’s momentarily set aside the obvious exceptions to this formula: those for whom college simply isn’t the best path, students with special needs who require a different paradigm, etc. On the whole, there’s strong data to indicate that advanced education positively affects the chances of a person finding career success. As such, the laser-like focus of our education system in Milwaukee seems to be maximizing the number of kids set up for acceptance to and completion of college.
The problem here is that the benefits gained through this trajectory are overly individualistic and tend to be financial in nature: better job, more money, higher ceiling. The bigger problem is that our education system is banking on bringing this trajectory to scale as the solution to the many problems that plague our city.
If our goal is to create a city where there’s slightly more economic mobility, this is a safe bet. But if our goal is to create a city that is fundamentally just for everyone, and not just those with economic prosperity, then this equation is deeply flawed. Our system should certainly continue its focus on ensuring that students attain an academic acumen that allows them access to post-secondary education and financial mobility. Equally important, however, is educating our children to be strong in character and critical consciousness. Only this kind of education will will lead them to see our city and their work as being about more than themselves.
As it stands, it’s entirely possible (and likely) that children can navigate our current system doing everything we advise them to do and accomplishing high levels of academic success, excel in college and enter adulthood neither inclined nor equipped to make our city a more equitable and just place.
That requires a different kind of educational upbringing — one that teaches explicitly about injustice and is honest about its roots; that makes clear how to use academic training as a tool to tackle inequality; that inspires our children to become the future leaders of our city, unequivocally dedicated to tearing down systems of oppression. As it stands right now, at our best, we’re teaching kids how to grow up and become the “haves” (and “sort-of-haves”) in a system of “haves” and “have nots.” And at our worst (the status quo), we’re preparing them to be the “have nots.” We must simultaneously equip our children with the tools necessary to becomes the “haves” and teach them to reject the existence of such a system altogether in favor of a system that works for everyone.
The good news is that there are educators across our city who understand that teaching has to fundamentally be about social justice, and whose classrooms reflect that understanding. The bad news is that our toxic debates around education in Wisconsin, current and past, seem to have nothing to do with this. Usually we’re talking about sectors, oversight and funding mechanisms instead of kids, and when we are talking about kids, the conversation ends at the “to and through college” trope. If our kids and the city they will lead are our primary concern, we must move beyond a fight over shares of failure pie and extend the dialogue beyond the benefits of a college education. We must concern ourselves with the creation of transformational leaders.
As the late Dr. Richard Shaull stated, “There is no such thing as a neutral education process. Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate the integration of generations into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes the ‘practice of freedom,’ the means by which men and women deal critically with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”
There’s no doubting that the logic of the present system is fundamentally flawed. So let’s use all of our classrooms, and the future leaders within them, to transform that logic and the City of Milwaukee in the process.