More Proof: Schools Can’t Save Society

What happens when a liberal do-gooder quits a high-paying job to teach in a low-income urban school? You know the answer as well as I do. Yet reading about Ed Boland’s ill-conceived year as a teacher in a New York high school still seems shocking and depressing.

Boland screenshot

We’ve all been there…

We shouldn’t be shocked, though we should be depressed. For the record, I sympathize with Boland and all teachers everywhere—including the younger me—who hope to contribute their mite toward social justice. It is still infinitely better to have teachers who care about their students than teachers who don’t. It is infinitely better for a school system to be full of energetic, selfless, dedicated teachers than for it to be staffed only by clock-punchers who checked their idealism at the door.

Even with the best of intentions and the highest of metabolisms, however, it is woefully naïve for any ed reformer to think that throwing dedicated teachers into a flawed system will somehow change the system itself.

As long as our society is cruelly segregated by race and class, schools for those at the bottom will not provide high-quality educations. There is no low-cost, simple solution to this structural problem. In order to fix schools for low-income Americans, we would first need to dismantle America’s built-in hierarchies.

Every experienced teacher knows this. One of my current colleagues wisely pooh-poohed my fascination with educational culture wars. The questions he was asking in his urban classroom, he recalled, were not about school prayer, evolution, or sex ed. Rather, he wondered if any of his students had a pencil.

Ed Boland’s story seems to offer more confirmation of this sad truth. Maureen Callahan offers a brief preview of his new teaching memoir in the New York Post.

Though it is tempting to do so, we shouldn’t dismiss Boland’s white-knight approach out of hand. Yes, he hoped to do some good. Yes, he only lasted a year. Yes, he ended up profiting with a book deal from his oh-so-brief exposure to America’s sad educational system. But his story is still something every non-teacher should read, if only to get some sense of the scope of our real educational and social problems.

The stories themselves offer a bleak picture of life in New York’s high schools. Students are violently abusive toward one another and toward Boland. They taunt him as a homosexual. They frame him as a child molester. They hurl physical and emotional abuse around the classroom with vicious abandon.

As must all white-knight stories, Boland shares his moments of despair. Schools don’t seem to offer a path of upward mobility for his students. Students don’t seem much to want one. Even the rare glimmers of hope are quickly snuffed out, as when one student’s father seemed at first to support Boland, only to reveal later his utter contempt for the lessons of high-minded educational salvationism.

There are no winners here. Conservative ed reformers might point to Boland’s failures as an indictment of progressive do-gooderism. They might use Boland’s story as proof of the failure of union-controlled public education, of big-system bureaucratism metastasized out of human scale.

It’s just not that simple. As I argued in my recent book, conservative school reformers have proved just as vulnerable to white-knight mentalities as have progressive reformers. The problem for both is that they have misunderstood the nature of the problem.

I’ll say it again, with apologies to the SAGLRROILYBYGTH: Schools can’t fix society; schools reflect society.

Can we improve schools? Certainly. But we can’t do it without addressing the real problems. The solutions won’t come from a techie web-based innovation. They won’t come from a market-based choice solution. They won’t come from bureaucratic safety nets slung haphazardly under a shattered system. Whatever your politics, if you offer me a silver-bullet reform to fix American society by fixing America’s schools, I’ll stop listening.

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  1. I pooh-pooh all your fascinations. All of them.

    Great post.

  2. The real problems appear most clearly and appear insurmountable if you look at them as part of the long history of colonialism. Urban public schools that are overcome with the dysfunctional reaction of their communities to desegregation and increasing cultural pluralism can do little on their own to address the core problems. As long as our dominant political culture is formed by white people with more of an “our country” nationalism and an irrational faith in the centralized, managerial state than a “live and let live” pluralism, liberals and conservatives alike will continue to impose an industrial European approach to schooling that was obsolete by 1945.


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