Last week, I bumped into an eye-opening, thought provoking, and generally upsetting article (read it here) in the New York Times about Chinese education and a culture of bribery that’s emerged, stacking the odds against disadvantaged families. For students to be admitted to the best schools, parents are often forced to fork over massive chunks of their savings and salaries and to grease the wheels to ensure their children receive a quality education. There’s also a strange culture of gift giving that goes on between families and teachers and other school staff. As a teacher, the idea that teachers would not naturally honor the opportunity of all students regardless of background, that they would change test scores for cash, had my blood boiling. I was so upset that I read the article aloud to my wife, who is also a teacher and we both had our jaws open wide.
Now, I don’t know much about Chinese education. And by “much” I mean nothing. Nor can I speak to the accuracy of the sad system described in the article, or how common or widespread it is, only that it was featured in the New York Times, which in a changing media culture that has taken creative liberties with things like journalistic integrity, still comfortably stands as the measuring stick for fair and well researched reporting. What I know is this: my first reaction to the article, aside from the anger and sadness I felt, was how happy I am that our (America’s) educational system isn’t like that. I felt proud to work in our system. Proud that my children will have the opportunity to go through it.
But as I was patting myself on the back for being lucky enough to live in and contribute to a free society that gives all its citizens fair and equal access to education, something none of us should (or do) take lightly, I started thinking about the ways our society, and of course, our education right along with it, are stacked to favor the advantaged. Those with more means, who come from more educated backgrounds, tend to have more frequent access to rigorous classes, diverse and far reaching content, more extra curricular opportunities, more reliable mentorship, more stable peer groups, and more access to peer leadership opportunities.
Start talking about race, or sexuality, and the conversation gets even more complex.
One of the Partnership For Change’s goals is ensuring the education we provide in our communities is equitable, which is different than “equal.” Saying everyone has equal access to education is a strong start, but doesn’t necessarily honor the variety of learning styles and diversity present in our classrooms, hallways, and workplaces. Nor does it mean everyone has a fair shot. Recent brain research and research and practice around Competency Based Graduation Requirements are offering some powerful thoughts around treating students one at a time, and in viewing knowledge and potential as not fixed, but entities that can be shaped and influenced. They’re also challenging some of our established school systems that group students by ability.
Part of what makes our Partnership so unique and exciting is the broad array of stakeholders present in our discussions around school innovation. Having more people involved doesn’t always make our discussions easy, or simple, but it’s essential so that we can challenge and inspire ourselves to always be doing better, to always be pursuing the ideas of fairness and freedom inherent in our national (and international) identity so that we can live up to our promises. Let’s renew (and renew, and renew) our commitment to this core pulse and always keep it close to our hearts and at the center of our work.
After all, whenever you’re patting yourself on the back, it’s good to keep a mirror handy.