“What percentage of NFL players are black?” I ask twelve boys in a summer program designed for students in danger of being retained at their recently completed grade level. We estimate about 75%. “OK, and what percentage of NFL owners do you think are black?” No need to guess here, the right answer is zero. The conversation is designed to provide students a content base for writing a Brief Constructed Response (commonly referred to as a “BCR”).
Now that the issue of race has been raised the conversation veers away from football. A curious student asks me, “if we walked by each other on the street [he is black and I am white] and you called me a n***** could you go to jail for that? Or if I called you a cracker could I get arrested?”
Other students’ heads perk up, waiting for my answer. There is a rich discussion to be had about First Amendment rights and the freedoms and limitations of speech in our society. At this moment the entire class is engaged and excited to learn about civics. But we have strayed too far off topic so the lead teacher tells us, “pull out a piece of paper and begin writing your BCR silently.”
Articles are written every year bemoaning the fact that young Americans are woefully ignorant about civics. Here’s a radical theory to consider: Young people don’t know civics because we don’t teach them civics! We made a decision in that moment with those twelve boys that practice with writing a brief constructed response was of higher value than becoming competent, prepared, participatory citizens. Does that decision mesh with your own values?
The instructor was no mindless drill-and-kill caricature. But our class time together was finite and the students had a final test fast approaching with multiple BCRs on it. The program evaluators look at the results of that test to determine whether or not to re-hire teachers from the summer before. Although the instructor would likely say that civics is more important than BCRs, the weight of the final exam (which had no questions about civics on it) was used to gauge his effectiveness as a teacher, and therefore his future employment pushed his actions in another direction.
What we choose to evaluate creates a set of pressures which shape teachers’ actions and thus the daily experience of our students in school. This is not necessarily a bad thing, assuming that the evaluation system is aligned with our highest values. I have no problem being held stringently accountable for ensuring that my students understand the laws of our land, our system of government, and their power and responsibilities as citizens. But my job has never been on the line based on my students’ abilities to obey the social contract when it is just--and to take non-violent action to alter the contract when it is unjust.
I have never been asked by an administrator how the work in my class will help to create informed and powerful citizens that can boost the health of our democracy. But isn’t that the point of public education? If not that, then what? Shouldn’t we come to some consensus about the goal before we create the means towards that end?
It’s no surprise that evaluate has the word value in it, but it is surprising that there is no conversation in schools about whether the values embedded in our tests actually match the values of our school communities.
As new federal legislation is on the horizon that will replace NCLB, right now would be a wonderful time for students, teachers, administrators, and families to have that conversation and to make their voices heard. Let’s teach our children civics by being active citizens ourselves.
The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.