Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Worse than sticks & stones

Wrongs unredressed, or insults unavenged -- Wordsworth

Prejudice squints when it looks, and lies when it talks. -- Unknown

While visiting an elementary school in East LA and standing in the hallway with the principal, two young boys were walking towards us from opposite directions. They had large wood paddles with restroom keys and as they came up to each other it was obvious they knew each other but had not seen each other recently. One boy asks the other, "Are you LEP like me?" "No" responded the other."I'm At Risk!"
These pre-teens had self-defined -- being of limited-English-proficiency and in danger of not completing school.

Our educational labels are stigmatizing -- and of little positive benefit to students. No matter how we adults sort out and classify students, the label becomes a prophesy fulfilled, a prediction school really pays attention to and, for the deficit branded student, an academic futility tattoo.
The challenge is not only to replace the words, but to shift the attitudes. We've shifted 'drop out prevention' to 'school holding power' so that the locus of change is the school. But when the phrase is used and not understood by the school person we have to say 'dropout prevention'.

The public conversation is complicated by the overt political use of language for political propaganda. "Tax Relief" is used to combat and re-focus the public interest in funding schools and encouragement of a general will to contribute proportionately to have excellent public schools. We, my side, speak of 'full funding' for public schools. We appeal to the social contract we have made with all of our children to have access to an excellent education. Our phrases include 'Graduation Guaranteed' and 'Graduation for All'. The words are a means of having a conversation about the possibilities.
But the challenge remains to convert individuals from the feeling that they are beleaguered taxpayers being bled for no-good-reason to a different notion: that of responsible adults providing for the children and for our economic future.

My opening salvo was about words that hurt and harm. The closing is about words that encourage narrow-minded selfishness. In either case, to loosely quote Sancho Panza, it doesn't matter if the pitcher hits the stone or the stone hits the pitcher, it still will be bad for the pitcher. Educational labels and phrases can hurt our children much worse than rocks and clubs.


Jose Rodriguez said...

Teaching in an elementary school in East L.A., I know exactly where you are coming from. Especially after reviewing our test scores from this past spring. I do feel that labels do more harm than good. We used to call it "tracking". There are a few schools where there is a change in culture. We are still accountable to the powers that be and standardized testing. That does not mean we teach to the test. We need to teach the whole child to be ready to participate in a global economy. And your thoughts here are a step in the right direction.

aurelio said...

Jose, you are so right: we used to call it tracking. Whatever we call it today, if it limits children and our ability to see their potential, it is still a negative mark.
Thanks for the comments.