Education Opinion

Let Them Eat P.I.E.

By Nancy Flanagan — July 17, 2011 2 min read
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In the end, it’s about crayons.

How many crayons does my child get? And how many do other children deserve, once my child gets all the colors he needs and wants--preferably in that spiffy box with the built-in sharpener?

From a thought-provoking blog at Learning First Alliance, about efforts to integrate Omaha Public Schools and make resource distribution more equitable:

Anecdote relayed by an OPS lawyer in conversation with a mother from a wealthier district: "If I understood correctly, you're telling me that my child has 10 crayons and these kids have no crayons. And you want us to give some of our crayons to those kids. Now that's probably fair. But as a parent, I'm never going to get behind anything that takes away my child's crayons."

Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson, in The Truly Disadvantaged, makes the salient point that the seemingly intractable problems of the “ghetto underclass” (his phrase) can only be addressed by creating and emphasizing programs in which everyone--including advantaged groups--can participate and also benefit. Programs designed to “fix” the underclass, lifting them out of poverty, will have no long-term impact on building a more equitable society, unless they “enjoy the support and commitment of a broad constituency.”

In other words, poor kids can have crayons, too, as long as my kids don’t have to give up any of theirs. Because asking my kids to share their crayons--dividing them equally or using them together--runs counter to human nature.

Wilson’s right, of course. The gap between our pretty-good public schools and truly disadvantaged schools won’t close until there’s something in those federal policies and programs for everyone.

Reformy organizations are all over that concept, these days--including this singularly disingenuous-to-the-point-of-nausea blog at Flypaper. Jamie Davies O’Leary suggests that what’s in it for the advantaged is the nice, warm glow that comes from missionary work in a public school (plus a leg up into the graduate school of your choice when your two years are up).

How do we compel people to care? Compelling stories, says the tautologically inclined Ms. O’Leary. She suggests watching The Wire, which compelled her to “more than normal” crying, during grad school. Plus, of course, supporting Teach for America which “sensitizes” its corps members to the “plight of inner-city education"--and “puts a human face on issues of educational inequity.” O’Leary doesn’t say whose human face represents inequity, but presumably it’s one of those cute minority kids in plaid charter-school jumpers you see in the StudentsFirst spots--$200 million will buy you a lot of compelling advertising shots.

There’s a great deal of cringe-worthy “grappling with this issue” in the blog--which freely employs the reformy equivalent of the royal “we:"

Most of us don't know about the "other America" reflected in The Wire, in North Camden, East Columbus or in pockets all across the country. Once you meet characters who live it each day - whether via your flat screen, a book or article, or in person via volunteering and getting involved - your worldview will shift.

How can “we” best help these “characters” and shift our worldview? Through the organizations in the PIE Network, O’Leary says: Stand for Children, StudentsFirst, TFA.

But we don’t want them in “our” schools, touching our crayons:

Poor kids do need different schools, not because they're poor, but because they tend not to get the background knowledge at home that the more affluent kids tend to get with home lives that are book- and language-rich.

I think we’ve all had enough “compelling” reform. Time to tell our own stories.

Because kids in Detroit--and lots of other places-- don’t have any crayons. And all kids deserve crayons.

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.