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CCE staff and partner reflections on our collaborative work to create schools where learning is engaging and rewarding, and every student is set up for success.

Go Upstream: Fighting Injustice in Our Public Schools

I am energized by the positive political engagement happening in our country and our state right now. It seems we have reached the tipping point where complacency and compliance to a system are being called out daily. While all of this great work is happening, I wonder if we are doing enough to get to the root causes and sustainable solutions. Frankly, there is not a widespread, thoughtful interest in our education systems, the curriculum they teach, or the values and perspectives they instill. Without an education that thoughtfully explores the foundations of this country with a critical lens, we won’t be able to harness the kindness in this world for real social justice. For me, this is a difficult criticism to make as I support public education and the teachers in it. I work with teachers who are in the struggle, navigating unjust waters so that they can make little dents of positive impact.

Little dents, however, are not going to move us or sustain us. Consider this parable used by Saul Alinksy and retold by Stevyn Colgan:

A group of campers on a river bank are just settling down for the evening when one of them sees a baby in the water. He immediately dives in, braving the fierce current, and rescues the infant. But as he climbs ashore, one of the other campers spots another baby in the river in need of help. Then another. And another. Overwhelmed by the sheer number of babies, the campers grab any passer-by they can to help them.

Before long, the river is filled with desperate babies, and more and more rescuers are required to assist the campers. Unfortunately, not all the babies can be saved. And, tragically, some of the brave rescuers occasionally drown. But they manage to mold themselves into an efficient life-saving organisation and, over time, an entire infrastructure develops to support their efforts; hospitals, schools, foster carers, social services, trauma and victim support services, life saving trainers, swimming schools etc.

At this point one of the rescuers starts walking upstream.

‘Where are you going?’ the others ask, disconcerted, ‘We need you here! Look how busy we are!’

The rescuer replies: ‘You carry on here . . . I’m going upstream to find the bugger who keeps chucking all these babies in the river.’

We need to find the root causes of our problems for there to be real change. The rescuers are the teachers. They want to help, but in their help, they are also exacerbating the problem. For at least a century the American school system has been made up of educators who want to do the right thing, but don’t have the time, energy, money or, in some cases, the moral courage to go upstream. They are products of the problem, and also the problem itself.

So how far upstream do we have to go? Going to protests, voting, talking with lawmakers, and writing letters to the editor are all helpful, but don’t go far enough. We need to figure out how we can do that work AND how we can support each other, our education leaders, and our teachers in the unlearning of how we do school. Teaching is noble work, but there is not enough work being done to help educators understand the oppressive practices in which they are engaged, where those practices originated, and why our systems fight so hard to keep those systems in place.

Here are some focusing questions for our unlearning:

  • How are students being assessed daily? How do teachers know what learners know and can do? Are the assessments fair, unbiased and relevant?
  • How many assessments are learners taking that are used to measure a school’s quality? Are these measures meaningful to you? Why? Are there other measures of success that are more meaningful?
  • Is your grading system degrading? What is the culture around letter grades, learning and success? How do parents view letter grades?
  • Is your school still tracking? Are there different levels for the same subjects? What language is used by staff, students and parents when talking about the learners in different leveled classes?
  • Is your school narrowing the scope and sequence of the curriculum to ensure learners do well on standardized tests like the SAT? Do you know the racist origins of the SAT? Do you know what the SAT tells us about a learner’s skills and knowledge?
  • What cultures are celebrated and recognized at your school? When student study other cultures, which perspectives are represented?
  • Do your learners study the structure of systems in the United States so they can identify systemic racism?
  • Do we allow all learners to truly practice democracy in schools? Are all students given an opportunity to be activists for causes that align with their moral centers?

Teachers are the gatekeepers. They can help our learners develop skills to challenge an unjust world. Organizers, unions, legislators, school board members, principals, superintendents, parents, community members - if you are comfortable with the injustices in our state including systemic poverty and racism, do nothing. If you would like to see sustainable change, go upstream and support our public schools in unlearning so that they can create policies and structures that are truly just and equitable.

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