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Living the Education Gap as a San Jose Teacher

New America Media, Commentary, Illiana Perez Posted: Dec 26, 2009

Editor's Note: Illiana Perez, 23, teaches beginning and advanced Spanish in San Jose. She is also a writer for Silicon Valley De-Bug.

In Washington, D.C., as politicians discussed health care and the economy, a group of students, educators and organizers convened at the Opportunity to Learn Conference to talk about what was most urgent to us education.

We gathered at the Marriot Hotel in Arlington to talk specifically about the education opportunity gap - the gap that divides students based on their access to education. Rather than focusing on comparing school achievement, the conference focused on schools accessibility to resources, quality teachers and effective curriculum. We stepped away from measuring achievement and asked the more fundamental question: How can all students be assessed at the same standard of achievement if they are not receiving the same level of education? As causes and solutions were discussed, we collectively surfaced ideas that ranged from national legislation to changing neighborhood bus schedules.

As a first year teacher at a San Jose public school, I am witnessing the lifealtering impact of the education gap. When an affluent school is preparing their seniors for college entrance exams while a school three blocks away is still trying to get their seniors to pass 8th grade reading exams, as is the case in my community, then something is not quite right. That is why one of the ideas I was most supportive of that came up at the conference was the notion of enacting a constitutional right for fair education. If accomplished, then students and organizers could better demand equal resources and materials. If all schools are provided with equal opportunity, then success in schools will rise, narrowing the achievement gap.

Another topic of discussion was the need for effective teachers. Essentially, teachers need to be prepared and supported in order to be effective. As a teacher, I have seen colleagues become extremely limited in their freedom within the classroom. We are given a limited amount of time, with a limited amount of resources and an overwhelming curriculum. We are expected to keep students engaged while stuffing them with specific material that they are expected to pass tests on.

The room for creative instruction and content enrichment has been eliminated. As much as teachers would like to stray from these tests, they are accountable for students results. It is difficult to keep students engaged when your job unwillingly becomes teach to the test.

The question then becomes, are students learning? Is the content sticking or are they merely being trained to correctly bubble in a letter from A to D on a multiple-choice test? In the end, the question of test effectiveness has become irrelevant. Tests have become the most common tool for the measurement of achievement but its usefulness is questionable. Yet teachers are forced to adhere to these testing standards, not only for the good of their overall school scores, but for the safety of their job. This detachment leads to many unengaged students falling behind. Sadly, these students continue to stay behind, and as they sink lower, the achievement gap grows wider.

One speaker John Powell, executive director at the Kirwan Institue, offered a more geographic solution to this educational gap. He introduced the idea of metropolitan integration. This idea addresses the segregation among racial groups and its effects on education. This racial bunching tends to lead to financial segregation. The affluent population extracts itself from a common neighborhood and creates a wealthy community in the hills. This new community is equipped with financial support, nice facilities and well-funded schools. As they enjoy their new, bubbled way of life, they turn their backs on the crumbling public school they left behind.

Unlike the flourishing school in the hills, the public school plummets. Funding drops, teachers flee, and students are the ones who suffer for it. A young student at the conference nailed it when she asked, If I am succeeding in my neighborhood school, why is it that I have to be moved to a white school to be challenged and better prepared for college? Why cant I stay in my school and receive the same level of preparation? Everyone clapped in support because they knew the answer: it is because our neighborhood schools are not equipped to fully prepare students. Schools have become racially and financially segregated. This division has created an imbalance, and only enables the opportunity gap to grow.

The most illuminating ideas to address the education gap came from the students. Because of their experience with ineffective teachers, students demanded being part of their hiring process. Students also touched upon the issue of money allocation. How is money distributed? What programs are being funded? Students felt that they are entitled to know the specifics of money distribution because in the end, they are the ones who suffer the repercussions of monetary decisions. As much as people wanted to reassure them on this issue, students werent the only ones who didnt know exactly where money was going. One of the youth leaders also demanded, bus schedules need to accommodate students who want to stay after school and be involved. Something as immediate and simple as bus schedules is the type of change that we should be focusing on every day.

From hearing the policy analysts, the educators, and the students, it seemed clear that they all saw that investing little in education only perpetuates failure. Students respond to what they are surrounded with. If they are surrounded with a school that provides them with community support, a safe zone, classroom resources, effective teachers and positive images, then they are more likely to reflect that. On the other hand, if they are surrounded with predisposed failure, metal detectors and school apathy then they are likely to turn the other cheek to the opportunities to education.

Although the gap is widening, the conference in itself was proof that people are organizing and recognizing the need for an educational intervention.

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