If We Want to Rescue Our Public Schools- And Our Youth- It’s Time to Start
Professor Mark Naison
All across the country, public school budgets are being cut. Teachers are being laid off, arts and sports programs are being eliminated, class size is going through the roof. For working class and immigrant youth, these policies mean that American society is no longer even promising them the illusion of social mobility. What awaits them, should they graduate from high school is a grim choice between the military, low wage labor, or immersion in the underground economy, coupled with the very real prospect of going to prison.
Given this grim reality, it is time for teachers to start reserving time in their classrooms to talk about the real story in America – Inequality! Students in poor and working class neighborhoods intuitively know that their futures are grim. Why not give them the evidence to show their suspicions are correct and that policies can be adopted that could give them greater opportunity if they are willing to organize and fight for their right to decent paying employment as well as a good education
The best place to start your lesson plan with income inequality. Every student in the United States should know that the top 1 percent of the population now controls 23 percent of the income, as compared to 9 percent in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Then move on to tax policy. Explain to students that federal tax rate on the highest incomes, which was over 90 percent in the 1950’s, is now below 40 percent. Then move on to union membership. Explain that in the 1950’s, 35 percent of the American labor force were members of unions, as compared to 13 percent. Conclude with the growth of the prison industrial complex. Explain that in 1980, less than 400,000 people were in federal and state prisons as compared to over 2 million today, and that among the African American males, there are now more people ages 18-30 in prison than there are in college
Then, after presenting these sobering statistics, ask students to “ connect the dots.” Ask them if there is any relationship between income distribution and the growth of the prison population. Ask them to discuss who goes to prison, and how it affects those people’s lives. Do people released from prison ever become part of the mainstream economy, or are they permanently condemned to a life of poverty and insecurity? Ask students to write about people they know who went to prison and came out. What happened to those people? How did that experience affect their families?
Then move on to education. Have students analyze the education they are receiving. What kind of future are they being prepared for by a curriculum that puts so much emphasis on standardized tests? Ask them to compare the experience of people they know who graduated from high school and those who didn’t. Was the experience of the two groups that different?
Then move on to politics. If the students conclude that the whole society, including the educational system, is stacked against them, what should they do about it? If they are going to protest, what examples in the past can be used a models. Teach them about the civil rights movement, the labor and unemployed movements in the Great Depression, the women’s rights movement and the movement against the Vietnam War. Give them the example of the Greensboro Lunch Counter Sit Ins where a group of four students decided to take history into their own hands. Ask them whether this protest has any relevance to what young people are going through today.
Then bring in hip hop. Explain how hip hop was created in the South Bronx by young people who had been written off by policy makers and created an entire new musical form at the very same time that music programs, and music teachers, were removed from the New York City schools. Ask them if that story, of marginalized young people making history, has any relevance to their experience? Ask them what it would mean for people like themselves to “make history.”
The pedagogy I am describing, I guarantee you, will grab students attention far more than the packaged history lessons being shoved down students throats so they can pass standardized tests. It will also impart critical thinking skills, and encourage writing, reflection and debate, in a manner that progressive educational reformers ( those that still remain) could readily embrace
But above all, it would inspire students, many of whom now are deeply depressed and profoundly pessimistic, to see that they are not doomed to poverty and marginality and that they can take actions that can make their voice be heard and change their circumstances.
Truth telling can be empowering. It can turn victims of unjust policies into agents of their own liberation.
It is time for teachers to unleash the genie of “Student Power” through bold and inspired teaching. It all begins with “Inequality.”
May 9, 2011