In the American Education System, Even Success Is Failure

I’ve always been fascinated by margins, both figurative and literal (or, dare I write, literally literal?); what an author scribbled in a fit of revelatory madness near the edge of the page is usually more insightful than the official type. And this fascination is quite convenient, as the margin is usually where I find myself. Take, for example, a big part of my job, which is working with and in schools, but not during the school day—in this realm of magic realism known as “out-of-school time” or “afterschool” (always one word), depending on your preferred jargon.

From this vantage, at the margin, the true quixotic absurdity and bankruptcy (again both figurative and literal) of the school system is most visibly laid bare. Behind the saccharine hallway displays, bordered always by some kind of frilly, ribbed paper, hastily stapled, and the corporate-buzz-word-heavy posters featuring, in alternating fashion, cartoon cats and less-than-chivalrous celebrities extolling the elixir that is factory-farmed milk, lies a dark and confusing place.

But for me, what’s even more fascinating than the mangled-car-on-the-side-of-the-road aspect of the whole enterprise is that it’s precisely here, at the crucible of overpopulation and underfunding, where most people expect miracles to happen. They expect kids to select and prepare for a college and career path—nay, one single vocation: a calling. They expect teachers to impart both the wisdom of the universe and the morality of the tribe, while being as officiously stern as a police officer and as patiently compassionate as a social worker simultaneously. They expect schools to “succeed”: to churn out graduates, grades, and game-winning touchdowns.

These miracles must be manufactured under artificial lighting, in prefab, faux-wood paneled units (the schools call them “portables,” which belies the fact that they’re big, barely air conditioned boxes that never go anywhere) with 20 desks for 25 students, and after a “meal” eaten in complete silence (in most schools there’s no talking allowed during lunch—lunch). And if you ask most adults, they’ll corroborate, but for completely different reasons, the near-consensus of the kids: school sucks.

Isn’t that strange? Here’s a place that everyone is familiar with, having gone to one before or working in one or having kids who attend one currently, but which almost nobody likes. Judging from the posture and tone and facial expressions of the teachers I see locking up their pens, er, classrooms after a hard day on the clock (which is just when I’m arriving at schools, already conducting an internalized bet about which flavor of pop-tarts the kids will have for snack), teachers don’t care for school much either.

Maybe it’s because to everyone on the outside—in minimum security, as the old anarchist joke goes—teachers are at the same time both miracle workers and pariahs: both caretakers of the future and the leeches of the present purse. If they can’t get every kid to do well, i.e. motivate and guide and inspire them, then teachers go from pillars of the community to lazy freeloaders, greedy crybabies (with union backing), or perverters of the truth—of the one true god. The truth, of course, is that teachers are just people.

I can’t think of an institution in America with more expectations heaped upon it, while at the same time having a lower approval rating. Even success is failure, since the main metric, standardized test scores, measure such a narrow skill-set—if we can call it that—that the fallout is several square pegs jammed through a few round holes: a sieved march towards the cubicle, which everyone pretty much also despises.

At least, that’s what it looks like from the margins.

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