How the State Grows an Underclass: a Teacher’s Testimony

A teacher who writes about her experience in a Title I school has given us a glimpse of the perpetuation of an underclass.

I didn’t see this essay until yesterday, so it is ancient history in internet time. But if you haven’t read it, I think you should. Parts are beautiful but it is mostly enraging and frustrating: “What I Wish I Could Tell Them about Teaching in a Title I School.”

I’m in my fifth year of teaching English at a Title I middle school. Title I schools are public schools that receive special grants because of their high number of students who have been identified as at-risk. I adore my students and my teaching team. I love teaching. I’m really good at it. I respect my administration and feel valued by them.

But at the end of this year, I’m leaving. I’m not sure if I’ll continue teaching elsewhere or start a new career. If I do leave, I’ll be one of the 40-50% of teachers who leave during their first five years. A drop in the bucket.

So the powers that be have a system that burns out close to half of all teachers in five years and yet the system continues.

Think about that as I highlight some specific observations that this teacher shares:

I would tell them about how I’m not allowed to fail a student without turning in a form to the front office that specifies all instances of parent contact, describing in detail the exact accommodations and extra instruction that the child was given.  I would tell them about how impossible this form is to complete, when leaving a voicemail doesn’t count as contact and many parents’ numbers change or are disconnected during the school year. I would tell them how unrealistic it is to document every time you help a child when you have a hundred of them, and how this results in so many teachers passing students who should be failing.

I would tell them how systems that have been put in place to not leave children behind are allowing them to fall even further behind.

So everyone knows that this system is a lie. It is designed to pressure teachers to pass the students who are failing rather than acknowledge that they are failing.

But it gets more… interesting:

I would tell them about my pencil cup that I keep filled from donations and out of my own pocket. I don’t ask for collateral or even for students to return them because it would take up too much instructional time. I once had a student refuse to do work because he didn’t have a pencil, and I said, “Don’t you know that you’ll have to do the work so that you can go on to the next grade with your friends?” And he said, without skipping a beat, “I’ve failed almost all my classes since third grade and I always promote. I don’t even go to summer school.” I stood there, dumbfounded, knowing he was right, but surprised he’d figured out the system so easily. The next day, I had the pencil cup.

I would tell them about how policies that have been designed to not leave children behind are also teaching them that hard work doesn’t matter.

So, again, not only do they fail and get passed, but they are taught to expect it.

And still it gets worse:

I would tell them that students who break rules at our school often don’t receive consequences. Last year our school had a higher number of office referrals and in-school suspensions, so this year teachers have been “strongly encouraged” to deal with discipline problems themselves. That means that unless the offense is severe or dangerous, students remain in class, whether or not their behavior is blatantly defiant.

I would tell them what a difficult situation this creates for the brand-new teachers, who are learning for the first time how to manage a classroom in an environment with so little disciplinary support. I would tell them how many teachers—good teachers—I know who have walked away during or after their first year because of this.

I would tell them about how a few weeks ago, I told another teacher’s student I would be escorting her to the office for her behavior, and she replied, “Why the f**k would that matter?” This student was back in that teacher’s class five minutes later with candy she received in the office.

I would tell them how hard it is to not feel hopeless when you realize that systems are teaching students that not only does it not matter if you do work at school, but it also doesn’t matter how you behave. 

There is more. Much more.

But I want to ask you, dear reader: Am I supposed to believe this is an accident? Am I supposed to believe these are all unintended consequences?

Maybe, but you have to admit it has an undeniable logic. There are definite and identifiable political interests that are served by a system that systematically raises a specific percentage of the nation’s children in this way.

People kept ignorant and encouraged to be defiant for their entire childhood will grow up to be just as valuable to big government as foreign terrorists are.

Every riot justifies the militarization of the police.

On the other hand, a thriving economy where everyone is advancing is a threat to the government. Who needs it then? A permanent growing underclass is the gift that keeps on giving to the state. It keeps those middle class taxpayers thankful because they need someone to protect them. The Feds promise to do so at a massive cost even while they teach the people they have raised to be miserable that those middle class taxpayers are the real villains who are responsible for their misery.

Is this disillusioned teacher witnessing mindless damage or the workings of a well-oiled machine?

Not sure it matters, but I think it is worth contemplating.

What do you think?