On My Soapbox

Recently I saw a FaceBook post where someone shared the thoughts of Robert Reich, Former Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration. Reich said the following:

One of the most basic of all American beliefs is upward mobility — that with enough guts and gumption, anyone can make it in America. That Horatio Alger mythology may have described the nation forty years ago, but not today. In fact, upward mobility is less likely in the United States now than in most rich countries of the world. Over 40 percent of children born into poverty in America will ever get out of poverty. In Britain — a nation for which “class” has had palpable meaning for at least five centuries — the corresponding number is 30 percent. By the same token, a child born into the lower-middle class (what we used to call “working class”) in America will most likely remain there, while one who is born into a wealthy family will almost certainly be a wealthy adult. The increasing class rigidities in America are due partly to education — children born to rich and upper-middle-income parents attend stimulating pre-K programs and continue on to well-endowed private schools (or, swanky public schools financed by local property taxes in rich school districts and the contributions of wealthy parents) and from there to elite universities; while poor and lower-middle class kids are in over-crowded child care and then lousy public schools, and can’t afford higher education. But another reason has to do with increasing geographic segregation by income: Poor and lower-middle-class kids see few models of success, while being born rich in America increasingly means never coming across anyone who isn’t.

So why do so many of America’s lower-middle-class (“working class”) families vote against their economic interests, and succumb to Republican lies?

(I should note that I corrected one spelling error in this comment.)

I don’t know about you, but when I read that I got angry. I don’t believe that we live in a rigid class structure that people in the lower rungs have no way of breaking out of. I can’t believe that life is as hopeless is this for anyone in the so-called lower classes. Do the rich have educational advantages? Yes, of course. Anyone who would deny that would be lying to you. At the same time, there are many programs that are only available to students in lower economic areas. Is education one way out of a bad situation? Of course I believe that because I am teaching, I teach with the belief that all kids can succeed and can break out of their bad situations. If I felt that Reich was right here and there was no hope, I would leave teaching in a minute. The only area where I agree with him is that poor and middle-class kids see few models of success. I seek to be a model, although I don’t know if my students would see me as a success. So where does the problem lie?

The problem has many roots. One root lies in those who would give up on people, like Mr. Reich and think that things are hopeless. I’ve had people ask me if I was training kids to be good employees. I look them straight in the eye and say, “Not for long. I tell them that I expect them to become good employers.” If you tell people that there is no hope and that they can’t succeed; they will prove you right 100% of the time. But if you tell people that there’s hope and that they can succeed you may be right only 50% of the time. I know in teaching 100% is a better grade than 50% – but I like the 50%.

Another root which is similar is the idea of keeping people dependent on others. Reich has the beginning of that argument as he rails against Republicans. (Ok, I’m going to get a little more political than I like when I talk about education here, but it’s necessary to respond to Dr, Reich who thinks Republican views are against the interests of middle class people.) Democrat ideology is focused on making people dependent upon the government. Democrat ideology doesn’t believe that people can succeed without big doses of government help – and Reich seems to think that it’s impossible anyway. One of the greatest examples of that is that Democrats count success in the food assistance programs with how many people are getting help. Republican ideology is that while the government may help for a bit, people shouldn’t become dependent upon the government. Republicans count success in the food assistance program with how many people no longer need the help. We need to teach students that they don’t want to be dependent on someone else to survive! You don’t have to agree with my views, but if you think I am mischaracterizing Democrats, please read what Robert Reich said again.

Another root we have comes from expectations. When I talk with kids about what they want to be I can’t tell you how many boys want to be rap stars or NBA players. I should point out before anyone makes the mistake that a person in a discussion on this Reich quote already made that this refers to boys from all ethnicities. Where I agree with Reich on the role models issue comes strongly to the front here: who are the successful people these kids see? Rap artists and sports stars. I’ve even had a few (of assorted ethnicities) tell me they were going to sell drugs. Those are the successful people they see. Even though those expectations are completely unrealistic – but they are what we have to start with. I convince kids they need math to make sure that no one is stealing money from them even if they have enough money to hire a money manager. Unrealistic expectations is another root of the problems we have.

Often lack of expectations is another root of the problem. If I had a nickel for every kid that asked me what they needed to do to pass, I would be a very wealthy man. If I had a dime for every parent whose only concern was that he was behaving well even if they didn’t do their work, I’d be wealthier. At the same time, sometimes I’m guilty of asking a kid to just get finished hoping that he’ll turn something in…anything in…so I can give him a grade other than a Zero. One of the questions I continually agonize over is how can I design lessons that will change the kid from wanting to do the bare minimum to pass into having a desire to achieve great things. How can I make those expectations contagious so that when I meet with parents they catch that same desire and work to help their kids succeed? How do we teach kids that there is no shame in failure if you learn from your mistakes and grow? How can we convince kids that good enough is not good enough and that they should strive to be better?

The solution to helping kids succeed begins with some of those questions. The problem that every teacher has is that he or she gets the students they get. As a teacher, it is my responsibility to design work that will get them excited. It’s my job to make the work so engaging that they groan when the bell rings. That’s engaging, not entertaining. I could get the groans if I showed nothing but movies which would be highly entertaining but not educational. It is my job to set high expectations for my kids and hold them to those expectations.

What can you do? If you agree with me where I agree with Dr. Reich that kids need to see role models of success; talk to your local school district and become a mentor. Come in with your eyes and heart open; prepare to be shocked but most of all, prepare to love those kids. For too long successful businessmen have kept arms lengths from the schools. Sometimes we hear criticism about how the school isn’t turning out kids who know how to read and write or do math. Sometimes we hear a lot of words that ultimately translate to “bless your heart for teaching those kids.” Sometimes, like in the case of the Reich quote, we get the very legs of our jobs cut out from under us. I don’t want a pat on the back, an “attaboy” or even a 25% discount at your store as much as I would love to see you give an hour a week to a troubled kid and work together with us to uproot the problem.

The Reich comment stings. It’s like a slap in the face telling me that I’ve wasted 20+ years of my life teaching kids that there’s hope when there is no hope. What sustains me, though, is the certain knowledge that he’s wrong. There is hope. Students who decide that they want to can break the chains of the cycle of poverty. They can succeed and they can aspire to something better of themselves. They will have a sense of accomplishment when they realize what they have done.

One of the questions I asked my kids near the end of last year was, “If I had told you at the beginning of the year that you were going to do this and that, would you have believed me?” I pointed out how much they had accomplished. There were some kids who didn’t take advantage of those opportunities to learn, but I think I had 80-90% believing me. I could have treated them like they couldn’t achieve and been 100% right. In this case an 80 beats a 100.


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