A social issue is defined as “an undesirable condition that people believe should be corrected” (Social problem, n.d.). When pondering the words “undesirable condition” one is bond to acknowledge the educational system in America has a plethora of issues that are not favorable. Remarkably, all issues within the American educational system have a connection to inequity, or the inability to provide varying levels of supports that put people on an equal playing field. This paper will focus on six social issues facing the American educational system: the literacy crisis, educational inequity, school choice, vouchers, funding and teacher salaries, and disciplinary policies. Furthermore, the voices and opinions of Vesia Hawkins and Thomas Weber will be integrated and reflected upon throughout this paper.
The achievement gap is one of the most prominent examples of educational inequity in the United States. The educational gap reflects stark differences in achievement when comparing white students with English Language Learners, people of color, and those students who are in poverty. This gap is the result of many factors: teachers not offering higher level thinking tasks to the later group, suspension rates of the later group being higher, and supports outside of the classroom not being prevalent for the later group. There are more factors outside of those previously mentioned that fuel the achievement gap; however, the ones mentioned here seem to be the most influential.
In regards to higher level thinking tasks, teachers seem to gravitate towards only offering lower-level thinking tasks to students who have been marked as lower achievers compared to their classmates. Classrooms where economically disadvantaged students are the majority will oftentimes focus on summarizing and recalling aspects on Bloom’s Taxonomy and rarely get to analyzing, evaluating, and creating portions. This is often a result of believing those higher level thinking tasks are not accessible to students who are disadvantaged or the result of teachers simply being misinformed on what type of work constitutes as analyzing, evaluating, or creating (Gonzalez, 2019).
Jennifer Gonzalez, the creator of The Cult of Pedagogy, gave an example of a bloom ball taking two days to assemble and the teacher mistaking the process of piecing together the sheets of paper to create a ball as the actual level of thinking required for the create portion of Bloom’s Taxonomy (2019). The example described is the type of mistake many novice teachers make—and oftentimes there are practices in education that “deliberately assign some of the most inexperienced teachers with some of the most challenging kids (Gonzalez, May 12, 2019).Logically, this phenomenon of placing less effective teachers with lower-achieving students does not come off as a sound practice; however, this has been and continues to be the practice of the American educational system.
Taking into account a lower-achieving students probability of being placed with an ineffective teacher and then compounding that with the likelihood of said students not having supports outside of the classroom: one is bound to believe said students have virtually no chance for growth. Students who come from poverty are less likely to have support at home because their parent(s) likely work more than one job. If a student does not have support at home, say for homework, then there is little chance the student will thrive or show growth throughout the year. This fact simply contributes to the widening achievement gap that is prevalent in today’s society. The gap only begins to shorten when schools have supports in place that help alleviate some of the burden of not having help or encouragement at home; even with that, many schools are not able to offer support for everyone or do not have the funds to offer any type of support at all.
Understanding that economically disadvantaged students, students of color, and English Language Learners have two distinct issues already against them is fundamental because school systems seem to disregard this and routinely present these students, particularly black students, with higher suspension and expulsion rates (“Social issues”). This practice does not make sound sense since these students, who are already behind academically, and have no support at home, only become farther behind when facing suspensions and expulsions. Thomas Weber explains that, “it’s not that we believe in suspending kids but we don’t give teachers resources to deal with students who bring in trauma” (personal communication, June 4, 2019).
His statement is absolutely profound because there is very little trauma training inside many school buildings due to a lack of funding. However, there should be discussions around how this issue of little trauma informed training will be resolved: for the reason that these issues only compound on one another and push students to a point where school does not seem accessible to them, creating a high drop-out rate, which is another component of the achievement gap. As citizens, it is necessary to ask, why are the practices that are in place in the educational system today still being perpetuated despite research showing these practices are not working?
The practices within the educational system in America have caused a devastating issue: illiteracy among more than 30 million adults in the United States, which means over 30 million adults can not read, write, or do basic math past a third grade level (“Social issues,” n.d.). This problem is the result of decades worth of inequitable educational practices, the result of poverty, and the result of the denial of education for certain groups in the past. Those aforementioned issues overwhelmingly affect poverty stricken individuals and people of color.
Inequitable educational practices can be seen across America in many forms. Taking time to examine the original purpose of education will allow one to understand why America is experiencing such a huge literacy crisis. To elaborate, “literacy has long been used as a method of social control and oppression. Throughout much of history, the ability to read was something only privileged, upper-class white men were allowed to learn” (“Illiteracy,” 2018). Science is not required to know the huge literary disadvantages that would cause for groups outside of upper-class white men. Specifically looking at how inequitable education was further fueled for African Americans, one can examine practices, or laws, in the past that prohibited them from being able to attain educational skills, such as reading or writing.
According to Gilliam 2014, “African Americans have been exposed to generations of legal and illegal measures to deny them basic rights. From slavery to Jim Crow—the African American community has endured unrelenting racism” (as cited in Bowman, Comer, Johns, 2018). Not only can the “unrelenting racism” Gilliam discusses still be witnessed in current practices within the United States; it can also be used to defend the fact that the denial of education for African Americans, and other groups, in the past has contributed to the overall inequitable educational system of America, which has resulted in a literacy crisis.
In regards to current issues that fuel the literacy crisis, the deliberate rezoning, or reassigning, of particular neighborhoods to certain schools has been a major influencer that has increased the amount of students not being able to read or write. Rezoning can be seen all across America, however, rezoning was a particularly big issue for the Nashville community in 2008 because the school board approved a rezoning plan that was dubbed a resegregation plan by the NAACP (Woods, 2008). The rezoning plan brought about people outsing memos that revealed officials wanted “to reduce the number of blacks attending schools in upscale white neighborhoods—to attract new white families and businesses to Nashville” (Woods, 2008).
This revelation is significant in that class and race are highly correlated so white students are more likely to identify with the middle-class while African American students are more likely to identify with the lower middle, or working class. Even though this type of maneuvering of students may be more appealing to white families, the lack of exposure to different ideas and culture is devastating for the students in poorer, or African American, families. One would think that the more integrated the school the more rich of an experience a student would have. As Vesia Hawkins stated, “research shows integrated schools work,” that is: the integration of races, the integration of cultures, and the integration of different classes (personal communication, June 4, 2019).
Integrated schools offer a more diverse experience and it is factual that “poor children learn more in middle-class settings” (Woods, 2008). In all, regardless of the research that supports the notion that students make more educational gains in more integrated setting, practices like rezoning fuel the separation of classes and races, further contributing to the devastating literary crisis.
Vouchers and School Choice
School choice is the notion that parents have options when it comes down to deciding the educational pathway for their school-aged children. A few general umbrellas for the different types of educational pathways are: public schools, private schools, and charter schools. Public schools are schools that students are zoned to attend—overtime public schools have developed “academies,” or courses that offer experience towards a particular career path, to make them more appealing.
Private schools, whether secular or religious, can offer courses that are montessori style, STEM driven, career driven, and a host of other instructional methods; educators at private schools usually have total autonomy and testing is typically done independent of state exams. Charter schools are similar to public schools in that they receive state funding and follow some of the same rules; however, they are different in that their students can come from any neighborhood and they have less oversight, such as not having to follow the state’s scope and sequence for core subjects (“Social issues,” n.d.).
School choice is a big issue across America and there are arguments on both sides advocating for the advantages and disadvantages of having choice. In Tennessee specifically, there was just recently a controversial educational savings account plan that was approved for both Shelby and Davidson County; in which Governor Bill Lee states the savings plan ‘provides more choices for more students and families’ (as cited in “School vouchers,” n.d.). To individuals like Thomas Weber, however, adding school choice only takes away more money from public schools that are already underfunded; and the experiences at public schools can be remarkably better through parents building connections with teachers, staff, and the principal (personal communication, June 4, 2019).
Though Weber’s statement is comes off as sound, one is led to conclude it is a bit idealistic because the makeup of every public school is different and the reality is many parents, who are economically disadvantaged, oftentimes do not have the time or resources to build quality relationships with the staff and teachers within a school. Contrary to the and mythical culture of poverty belief, this does not mean parents do not care; it simply means it is not feasible for them to be active participants in their children’s education due to their economic standing.
Vesia Hawkins presented an anecdote for how parental involvement of lower-income parents at Hillsboro High was virtually impossible because the school would host the meetings at one in the afternoon, when most parents are still working (personal communication, June 4, 2019). Practices such as the one Vesia described can likely be seen all across America, leaving many parents unhappy with the public school their child is zoned to.
The introduction of Lee’s educational savings plan will serve as a temporary fixture to offering a different education to students of color, EL students, and students in poverty whose parents can provide transportation to private or charter schools. Students of lower-economic standing being intermixed with students from more diverse backgrounds will allow them to break social barriers and hopefully make connections that build their cultural capital.
Schools across America have astounding similarities in the suspension rate statistics regarding people of color and their white counterparts. “Data from the U.S. Department of Education for Civil Rights suggests that Black students face disproportionately high rates of suspensions and expulsions from schools” (“Social issues,” n.d.). In other words, black students are more likely to be suspended in comparison with their white counterparts for the same infraction. Recently, the former Director of Schools for Metro Nashville Public Schools, enacted a policy that established elementary school students could not be suspended or expelled unless it was a major case of assault (Dr. Garcia, June 6, 2019).
Ideas such as the one aforementioned are only providing a band-aid solution without getting to the root of the issue. Educators know that students from impoverished neighborhoods are more likely to have experienced trauma so they oftentimes are the students who are acting out the most in class. Instead of saying let’s not suspend any children, districts could fuel more money into schools to implement practices such as Psychologist Ross Greene’s, which does the opposite of band-aiding a problem because:
You’d talk with the kid to figure out the reasons for the outburst (was he worried he would forget what he wanted to say?), then brainstorm alternative strategies for the next time he felt that way. The goal [of this method] is to get to the root of the problem, not to discipline a kid for the way his brain is wired. (Lewis, 2018).
The practice Green created is likely reminiscent of one of the resources Thomas Weber would support in public schools because he states, children bringing trauma into school need resources for situations that may arise as a result of their experience with trauma (personal communication, June 4, 2019). In all discipline will continue to be a huge issue in the American education system until resources are brought in that help students and teachers work through trauma hand in hand.
Funding and Teacher Salary
As a result of teachers having so many tasks to work through each day and the cost of living rising, many strikes have been initiated in hopes of states recognizing teachers need more pay and schools need more funding. In this day and age, many teachers can not afford to live in the city they teach in. That is a harsh reality to accept when teachers put in so many hours on and off the clock to support student achievement and growth. Just recently, teachers across Nashville held a two-day district-wide callout, which left McGavock High School with 125 vacancies in one school day—absences reaching 1,093 on the first day of the strike (Associated Press, 2019). Given the work that goes into being a quality educator, strikes are only bound to keep happening until there is a generous increase in salaries and funding.
How the Topics Discussed Translate Into the Classroom
The issues within this paper bring about a heightened awareness to the importance of always remaining reflective of practices and considering how students learn best on a deeper level. This looks like a teacher incorporating more oral presentations because ninety-five percent of her students are black and their culture is heavily situated in passing information through word of mouth. This also looks like a teacher actively asking herself is she bypassing opportunities to present minority students with higher order thinking tasks.
Both examples put students at the forefront of the teachers thought: not teacher pay, not teacher resources, and not whether or not vouchers will be approved. All of those issues are important but they will fall into place at the proper time. In order to give students the best experience, which challenges their comfort zone and allows them to make more neural connections, teachers have to think with students in mind.