Why More And More Students “In the Hood” Are Out of Control
Professor Mark Naison
During the last year, I have gotten more and more reports from the best teachers I know in Bronx public schools, that their students “are out of control.” We are not talking about Ivy League Teach for America types who grew up in wealthy suburbs, but tough, charismatic, physically imposing women, graduates of New York City public schools, with formidable classroom management skills and a great sense of humor.
At first, I found these reports hard to believe. The women I am talking about are not only physically strong, they are incredibly innovative in their pedagogy- the best of the best! If they can’t control a class of Bronx 11 or 14 year olds, who could?
But then I started thinking about their work in a much larger context than one suggested by discussions of curriculum, class management, or graduation rates. And I came up with a startling conclusion- that students living in America’s poor neighborhoods, even by age 10 or 11, already know, intuitively, that the schools they are in are unlikely to get them out of the world of poverty and hardship that surrounds them. As a result, they see what goes on in classrooms- especially all the tests they are bombarded with- as fundamentally irrelevant to their lives!
And they are not wrong in their assessment! If they look around their neighborhoods, they see precious few people who have used education to better their lives. For every person in their hood who gets out by pursuing higher education, there are five who leave by going to prison or joining the armed forces! In their world, there is little real life reinforcement of the message schools preach- that the way to success in America is by passing tests, graduating from high school and going on to college. Those who do manage to jump through all those hoops, when they get to college, find the path is long and treacherous, both economically and academically, and if they do manage to get a college degree often can’t get jobs at all, or can’t get jobs that allow them to pay off their student loans!.
The current economic crisis has only made the path of self-denial and academic effort seem more problematical. At a time when even middle class college graduates, from top private colleges, have trouble finding work how are you going to “sell” the proposition that education is the path to success in South Bronx neighborhoods like Morrisania or Hunts Point?
The bottom line is- in a city where the top 1 percent of the population monopolizes 44 percent of the income- you can’t! The deck is already so stacked against young people growing up in poverty that no legerdemain or trickery or classroom magic can convince them that the things they are learning and being tested on will have any positive effect on their lives.
So why shouldn’t they fool around? Why shouldn’t they act out? Why shouldn’t they try to enhance their reputation as a thug, a comedian, or a flirt by making the classroom their private theater? After all, those traits represent real life social capital in the world they inhabit, as opposed to the math problems, history lessons, or sentences they are given to construct.
Some people attribute the phenomenon of poor kids acting out to the stress they are under outside of school- reflected in issues ranging from poor diet, to lack of sleep, to gang violence, to physical abuse in their places of residence. All those are undoubtedly contributing factors. But let’s not discount the “rational” element in student behavior, reflected in their very real understanding that the schools they are in are simply unable to deliver on the promise of a better life they use to “sell” their pedagogy.
Given that cold reality, there is absolutely no reason why a student in a place like the South Bronx should defer the joy and status of being a class comedian or “thug in training” for the prospect of participating in an endless round of test preparation, which for people in their neighborhood is truly “ A Race To Nowhere.”
May 5, 2011