Dear Tim @ SXSWedu
I attended your keynote at SXSWedu, and saw your subsequent Facebook post addressing a difficult topic for you to speak to: inequity in education. I appreciate the candidness in your post about not feeling qualified to speak to some of these things in detail. I have to be honest, though: it was quite disappointing and upsetting for me to watch you dismiss questions around identity so easily. I honestly doubt you’ll read this or take it seriously, but I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you were actually serious about wanting to learn more. In that spirit, I’ll outline some of my own thoughts after having spent the past six years working in an inequitable education system – with every intention of continuing for the rest of my career.
A bit about me, so you know where I’m coming from. I went to St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY. It’s a small, expensive liberal arts college. I couldn’t get into Princeton. I ran cross country and track for all four years at a pretty competitive level. I really connected with some of the ideas you were discussing about the virtues of simply being tough and working hard. As I looked towards graduation, and with a mounting level of student debt piling up, I wanted to do something that aligned with the convictions I had built up in college and that would actually help me start paying the bills. I applied for TFA because it seemed to offer both of those things. Obviously working as an English teacher is not very profitable, but I love my content, was excited about teaching, and saw a safe, practical path towards a future with a meaningful career. I never really considered anything else.
I was accepted into TFA. I told them I would go anywhere. Even though in some ways I was playing it safe, I did want to be somewhat unique. I was assigned to teach in the small Delta town of Marked Tree, Arkansas. I expected to be placed in an urban district, and was very nervous about moving to a region I basically knew nothing about. Teaching in the Delta radically changed my world view, and made me grow in ways that I never imagined. If you actually want to learn more about educational inequity, you are invited to come with me and see some of the schools I work in. I made deep, lasting friendships, and most importantly have a unique and powerful perspective on what I think will actually make a true impact.
It might surprise you that I know St. Paul’s well. I went to Hanover High School, just up the road an hour or so. While it is a public school, it is extremely well funded. I was afforded just about the best possible public education I think there is. Many students who attend are connected to the Dartmouth community. They often attend prep schools like St. Paul’s. If you’re serious about learning more about education inequity, my first thought is this: no conversation about this topic can be productive without everyone acknowledging their own experiences, biases, privileges, and backgrounds. I believe your inability to speak directly to the questions raised about identity in your keynote are a result of these things – they evoke fear, and that fear creates barriers that continue to perpetuate inequity. The only logical path to eliminating such inequity is to try and shine a light on where we play a role in that as individuals. I deeply believe the path to equity is through empathy, especially across lines of difference. There is no app for that.
Inequity in all forms is borne out of people not treating others with basic human respect and decency. This is true of educational inequity. It’s not an unfortunate problem that is the result of policy errors, missed opportunities, lack of resources, or any number of shallow explanations that I’ve heard over the years. If that were the case, we could have solved it by now. Rather, it’s a manifestation of a simple, painful truth: like so many other systems in the United States, the school system wasn’t designed with all kids in mind because it didn’t think all kids were full human beings. Therefore, embedded into the DNA of our schooling system is the thought that poor kids, kids of color, girls, LGBTQ students, religious minorities, and any other potential indication of disenfranchisement – they are all conceptualized on a deep level as not being full humans capable of the self-actualization you evangelize. This dissonance makes it easier for people, in some cases, to kill them. You should research the school-to-prison pipeline. Black kids are disciplined or suspended at staggeringly high levels compared to white kids who do the same stuff. From there, they go to detention centers, then jail, and then all kinds of things can happen that might cause them to die – but of course, they don’t have to be on that pathway to have their lives endangered. Still, we must establish the understanding that educational equity is a true matter of life and death for many students.
You and I both went to some pretty impressive schools; you more so than I. My high school was highly competitive, and within my circle of friends, if you didn’t get into a big name school, it was embarrassing. I remember scoring in the 88th percentile on the SATs. I felt like an idiot. As I navigated this competition, I only looked up. I didn’t consider the fact that 88% of students who took the SAT scored worse than I did. They were below me. They didn’t matter. I had beaten them. They should have studied more. We all took the same test, and had access to the same study books, right?
I needed to focus on moving up ten points to get into my dream school. I recognize how problematic this line of thinking is now, but then I was just playing by the rules of a system loosely veiled as a meritocracy. I bought the lie. I would imagine you know as well as I do that the nature of politics, money, legacy, influence, and ego makes a devastating mockery of the idea that colleges like yours and mine admit students based on merit; yours more so than mine. Schools, especially private ones, are absolutely not meritocracies. They play pretend, but the cost of that pretending is ivory-tower navel gazing at the expense of poor kids who come to school because it’s their most reliable source of a meal. Picking out a few poor black kids to offer scholarships to every year allows some people at those institutions to sleep better at night, but not me. My students are the other 88%, and some of them are fighting for basic survival in the richest country on the planet.
I get the sense that you’re a decent guy who is trying to do something positive. I know you’re trying to make a profit from branding yourself, and you are fully entitled to do that. I don’t think I’m any better or worse than you are. I would say, however, that there are some indications from your discussion that suggest to me your world view is currently at odds with what I think it will take to create true educational equity. You seem to be really bought into capitalism and competition. That’s fine, and I’m not here to debate capitalism with you – though I could.
However, from an educational perspective I can tell you this: competition leaves people behind on purpose. It doesn’t make everything better. This is why school choice, for-profit schools, coding academies, and any other fun capitalistic idea championed by people outside the public education system – which is, and will always be, responsible for all kids – is ultimately doomed to fail. The success of these ventures is predicated on the inevitable failure of students who never had a shot in the first place. They are morally wrong, and can therefore never be fully realized.
You say in your Facebook post that you’ve been focused mainly on smart kids for scholarships. I say that all kids are smart. I say they all deserve the chance to go to college (or otherwise find an education that provides a legitimate pathway into the middle class) in a way that doesn’t cripple them with debt. Once we start realizing that’s not a radical lefty idea that’s nice to sing around some campfires with an acoustic guitar, but rather a basic, fundamental thing we do as Americans, then we might be on the right path. However, that cannot happen without first realizing that we have never, in the history of our country, provided a system that can even pretend to do that. Our systems were never designed for all kids. I know that because every system always perfectly achieves the results it was designed to get.
You have a large platform, and a clear passion for the kind of innovative thinking that might actually move the needle in all of this. I challenge you to start using it to explore some of these ideas. The first person you should start talking to is your fellow keynote speaker at #SXSWedu, Dr. Christopher Edmin. If not, at least I wrote a blog post for the first time in a while.