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Entirely Secondary: Excitement Should Trump Equity In Education

  • April 19, 2012

The system tries to make sure all students get equal educations, but that doesn't happen, so why can't we trust in excitement to spark learning?

By Jerry Heverly

A colleague once told me about the time when she was in the sixth grade. She attended school in the tough Bayview District of San Francisco. As happens too often in America’s cities there was a shooting. A classmate was killed. My colleague’s teacher revised her curriculum for that semester.

For the next few months the class concerned itself with every aspect of city violence and its victims. They read about ways to encourage peaceful streets, they wrote letters of condolence to families of victims, and they generally focused their whole attention on healing the wounds of their classmate's premature death.

In a teacher-prep class at Cal State East Bay I learned about another teacher. Upon returning from the Vietnam War this teacher got his high school teaching credential in social studies. Assigned to teach American History this fellow decided to teach the Vietnam War, something he knew a great deal about.

He taught the Vietnam War and nothing but the Vietnam War. His students learned of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, of Ngo Dinh Diem, and all about the Tet Offensive. The curriculum did not include Dwight Eisenhower or Senator McCarthy or Watergate, just the Vietnam War.

When I tell people about these teachers they generally express dismay.

“Those kids were cheated of a good education,” I’m told.

“No wonder our kids can’t find Iraq on a map,” they say. “

In a nation as heterogeneous as the US equity of opportunity has always been espoused as a crucial goal of our society. We know that inner city kids don’t get the same education as suburban children. And even within a single school kids have widely varying experiences.  Most American students are ability grouped. Trying to provide the same chances for kids in a low ability grouping as their smarter peers is very difficult.

So it’s no wonder that at my school we spend a great deal of time and effort trying to give every student an equal chance to learn.

At the beginning of each semester I receive a ‘pacing guide’ listing the stories to be read, the grammar to be taught, and the standards to be ‘covered’ each week.

Standards are capsule summaries that the state legislature published about twenty years ago. They are intended to guide the lessons of the thousands of classroom teachers throughout the state. “Integrate quotes and citations into a written {research paper} text,” says the state website, “while maintaining the flow of ideas.”

You can probably guess from my examples, above, that I’m not a fan of pacing guides and standards.

Rather than equity what I seek is excitement, the flash of something  powerful that mysteriously transfers from one adult to one child. It doesn’t happen in every room. Nor does it happen every day, or with every student. Some teachers just can’t reach your child.

But it’s enough for me if a handful of teachers do connect with your kid. My sense of high school is that most students do find adults—counselors, teachers, janitors—who influence their lives for the better.

That’s what is lost in a system focused solely on equity. By trying to assure that I won’t cheat your child of an equal education I fear you are sacrificing something greater. I wish you trusted me enough to allow me to try out my own ideas, but I certainly understand why you don’t.


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