Neil Tambe

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I'm a Detroiter who happens to enjoy writing, national parks, orange juice, the performing arts, and fanciful socks. More than anything though, I aspire to be a good husband, father, and citizen.

Thinking We Just Need To Fix Education Is Missing The Point

Almost every conversation I have about domestic politics, economic development, or social justice devolve into a discussion about one thing: how we need to "fix education." Now, after getting to know some inner-city teachers and interacting a little bit with Detroit students, I've come to realize that "fixing education" is missing the point. It might even be a narrative hijacked by interests who want to distract every citizens from deeper, more systemic issues. First, I'm beginning to agree that the real issue in education is not education itself, but poverty. This is the idea is that kids who are poor are put in a position to fail in the classroom. One, because they have a lot of other issues which prevent them from learning (hunger, health issues, instability at home, etc.). Second, because they are poor they are in schools without adequate facilities, enough individual instruction, or support services like mental health or social workers. So, the kids who need the most help to benefit from the so called "great equalizer" of education, receive the least.

So, at very least, we should expand the conversation about education reform to include poverty alleviation. Doing any less would probably be a waste of time. If we can't address poverty and basic needs, any education reforms would be difficult to implement effectively. What gets me about this "fixing education" mantra is that it distracts from the bigger issue of poverty alleviation. To me, the real issue is not common core standards, class sizes, vouchers, or teacher pay. The issue, straight up, is poverty. From my perspective, improving poverty makes any education-specific reform much easier.

But I'll concede, maybe there is some merit to arguments against poverty programs along the lines of effectiveness or the need for individual responsibility. Maybe bedeviling the education system isn't really a conspiracy to distract people from transfers of wealth through poverty programs. I disagree, but let's say that it is so we can keep this conversation going.

What I find flabbergasting, however, is that there's almost no discussion about reforming deep-seeded political institutions that probably contribute to poverty, inequality, and a need to "fix education." I'm talking about things like gerrymandering, voter suppression, campaign finance, lobbyist influence, legal access and the like. These exclusive political tools and techniques make it extremely burdensome for people who are oppressed or exploited to stand up for their own rights and participate meaningfully in the political process. Right now, people with money and rule-making capabilities are the ones who have a disproportionate ability to exercise their political rights. Because of this, rules get written and laws get passed which helps those with power and wealth to keep power and wealth, at the cost of those who do not. And then, inequality increases.

This cycle perpetuates poverty, which in turn breaks the education system. Without inclusive political systems, we won't have inclusive economic systems, and without equitable economic systems education will falter and entire generations of children will be left behind. The real system to "fix" is not the education system, what we really need to reform is the political  system.

In my heart of hearts, I worry that making the education system a punching bag is a sleight of hand to redirect citizen's attention away from political reform*. This would presumably be to preserve entrenched political and economic interests.

So here's the skinny. Respect if you want to "fix education", because yes, our kids deserve better. But the next time you or someone you know says that "we need to fix education" I urge you to inquire about whether they think about anti-poverty programs or about political reforms (ask them about non-partisan redistricting commissions for example, that's my #1 or #2 issue). If they're unwilling to address poverty and political reforms, they might be a phony when it comes to "fixing education."

* - Also, cut teachers some slack. They have one of the hardest jobs in the whole country!

Please do say hello: neil.tambe[at]gmail[dot]com