Once upon a time, a friend and I were talking about a math teacher our daughters shared. She said, “You know, his lessons weren’t so exciting, but at least he’s got the content knowledge, so the kids could work it out.”
I grew quiet, and an awkward pause ensued.
This had not been my daughter’s experience at all.
My friend’s daughter is the quintessential math kid, the kind you can provide with some math content, and she will eagerly work through it. She loves patterns and puzzles, sticks with new things until she gleans key insights, with or without a teacher. She is a bright and thoughtful kid, and any teacher would be glad to have her in class.
My kid? The social world is her main interest in school. Honestly, she is a fabulous little social scientist, drawing me sociograms of the lunch tables to explain the different friend groups, designing “crush scales” to help her friends quantify the extent of their infatuations, providing me with details of the social markers of popularity at her school. She finds school fascinating, but the school curriculum does not always engage her. Her academic interests depend largely on her relationship with a given teacher.
With the math teacher in question, she had a strong strike against her. She is a doodler, and this same math teacher was squarely anti-doodle.
In a parent conference, he told me that he viewed her doodling as a lack of seriousness. I tried to push back and help him see her more clearly, to little avail. In the end, the same perceptiveness that led my kid to understand the subtle workings of her school’s social dynamics led her to the conclusion that this teacher did not think very highly of her as a potential learner in his class. Not surprisingly, her engagement reflected that.
The differences between my friend’s and my experiences with the same teacher has me thinking about how limited we are when we talk about the quality of education. Often our discourse focuses on whether things are “good” –– whether it is teachers, classes, or schools –– as if it is an essential property of the thing. In this case, my friend would probably say that this teacher was “good enough,” because that was true –– for her daughter. As you may surmise, I would say otherwise.
Our impoverished way of sorting the educational world into good/not good has consequences for the systems we have created. I would go so far as to say that it contributes to inequality. Many middle class parents are probably familiar with the conversations about “good schools.” Parents seldom actually go and visit the schools, but there are signifiers that stand in for goodness, many of which are problematic: test scores (which correlate to parent income and education), student populations that skew White/Asian/affluent. As the consensus grows about where “goodness” lies, in our crazy U.S. system, property values respond accordingly, reinforcing the demographic factors that underlie those assessments.
The thing is, I go to a lot of schools. I have been to schools that are deemed “good” by powerful parents and have found myself distressed at the socio-emotional climate or underwhelmed by the substance of the academics. I have been to schools that are deemed “bad” and have conversely been bowled over by the widespread care and wowed by thoughtful teaching and learning.
Our discourse around “goodness” in education cuts off the essential qualifier –– for whom? In doing so, it reinforces goodness as inextricable and erases important questions about whose learning is being supported.