Entirely Secondary: Excitement Should Trump Equity In Education

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?


(Editor's note: This column is written by San Leandro High School English teacher Jerry Heverly. Its tag line is inspired by education blogger Joe Bower who says that when his students do an experiment, learning is the priority. Getting the correct answer is entirely secondary.)

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.

Read other columns from the Entirely Secondary archive.

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Rene A. Mendieta April 19, 2012 at 06:29 PM
Great article. I recall as a senior in high school an experience I had in my history class. My friends who had attended this particular class warned me that the teacher showed films about the Holocaust which were very graphic. I remember when the day came when the documentary was shown to the class. It was horrible. I looked around the class and you could see the fear and bewilderment in the faces of my classmates. Some covered their eyes. Up to that moment, the "violence" that I was accustomed to was in the western movies or the mob violence on the Untouchables! This was my "loss of innocence" moment and the beginning of my adult life. That day, I went from a "sterile, safe" world to a 'real, complicated, beautiful, scary" world. Let's be clear about one thing, the professor also taught us other topics of American and world history, but viewing the Holocaust documentary gave us a serious dose of reality that isn't readily available in the textbooks. School and learning isn't just about reading, writing and arithmetic. It's about shaping the human character. As in the movie Jurassic Park, when Dr. Malcolm, asks "it's not whether we could (recreate dinosaurs through DNA science); it's whether we SHOULD!" Too many "rocket scientist" today need to be asking that same question. I hope that the schools they attended were more successful than not in effectively shaping their "character" as they make decisions that can either be beneficial or detrimental to society.
Leah Hall April 19, 2012 at 06:38 PM
Thank you for your comment Rene. Thanks also to Jerry for this wonderful series. I'd like to second what Rene has written. As parents, my soulmate and I feel that reading, writing and arithmetic are fairly straightforward subjects to teach. It's the social intelligence part, and the passion part, that take the real work. Thankfully, it is quite rewarding when adult caregivers and educators take this simple fact seriously. Pay it forward!
Leah Hall April 19, 2012 at 06:50 PM
"50 Berkeley High Students to Be Suspended School says students hacked into its attendance system" -The Bay Citizen Creative little know-it-alls, arent' they? :) (http://s.tt/19wrw)http://www.baycitizen.org/education/story/50-berkeley-high-students-be-suspended/
Marga Lacabe April 19, 2012 at 06:57 PM
For months I've been thinking about starting a parents movement called " Let Teachers Teach" . Most of our teachers are extremely well trained and educated. Many have many years of experience in the classroom. And yet, we require them to do little more than follow the dots in lesson plans we don't trust them to write themselves. When these fail, we blame them and add more and more dots. And then we are frustrated because our educational system fails. Would anyone else be interested in joining me on these efforts? Tell the district to punt the district-wide tests, let teachers teach in the manner they find best suited for themselves and their students. I know my kids' teachers. They are smart and committed - and I trust them much more to educate my children than bureucrats at the district or in Sacramento.
David April 19, 2012 at 08:03 PM
Only if you can couple with my proposed changes above. With near-total job security and no benchmarks, the natural human inclination is to slack off. Freedom to teach must include freedom to fail (and be fired).


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