Late last night, Chris Lehmann posed the following idea on Twitter: Question on my mind: How can you demand that people to improve if you don't improve the circumstances of their life / work / etc?
My response: Perhaps "demand" isn't the right road? Perhaps we inspire or support or model?
CL: I agree completely. So why do we see so little of that in today's educational landscape? Especially in urban settings?
SG: I think we do model another "reality," but may be unwilling to accept that many are happy as they are.
Regardless of the late hour, I couldn't quite let the idea alone. (I really liked Chris' original question and hope that he makes a post of his own about this---it's good stuff to think about.) Do we (educators) assume that because parents and children are living on wages made at McDonald's and Wal-Mart (and/or on government assistance) they aren't happy with their lives? Is it because we don't think we would be?
I like to think that standards-based reform is about equity of opportunity. Not everyone needs or wants to go to college, but perhaps not everyone wants to spend the rest of their days restocking items at K-Mart, either. In working to ensure that every child has mastered the "basic" educational background, we are trying to keep as many pathways as possible open to children. It is not that after years of working a minimum wage job that someone can't earn a college degree, but I think that it becomes more difficult with time.
I am wondering if we forget the time involved with generational change. I have had a few students over the years who have said that they were to be the first ones in their families to graduate from high school. An awesome thing, to be sure, but also a bit sad---how can it be the 21st century and some families can't claim to have a high school diploma among the lot of them? For how many of us did it take a generation (or more) beyond that to find the first college graduate? Master's degree candidate? We now expect that all of our kids will be "college ready," but is this how cultural change happens? Can we "demand," as Chris originally posed, our ideas of improvements be taken on by families?
And how does the staggering dropout rate play into this?
I was thinking about a primary aged student this year who was so excited because he had just taken his first ride in a mini-van. Mind you, he had gotten this ride from CPS because mom had died a year ago and now dad had broken some laws and was going to in jail for a good long while. This is not a story about the resiliency of children so much as it is a point of interest about perspective. The child had something wonderful happen (from his perspective) and my initial reaction wasn't one of support, but one of pity because the standard of happiness was so "low" in my opinion. Who am I to judge, however? If riding in a mini-van is the most awesome thing ever, why not help the kid celebrate? Later, perhaps I could share a story of my own. And still later, provide other "firsts" for the student to experience---first chapter book read, first science project awarded, first trip to visit a college campus.
All that can happen for now is to provide opportunities and to help students be aware of what choices they can have. It should be up to them what they ultimately do and how much happiness they find---not whether or not they fit our conventions of what an enlightened life contains.