First Person

Voices: On Election Day, pondering education's purpose

Peter Huidekoper, Jr., veteran educator turned education consultant, argues schools need to prepare students for life – not just jobs. 

Lately we have been told again and again that our educators are not preparing American youth to be efficient workers. Workers. That language is so common among us now that an extraterrestrial might think we had actually lost the Cold War – Marilynne Robinson, When I Was a Child I Read Books

Of course it matters who wins tonight, but no matter who our next president is, I intend to ask him and other leaders one question over the next four years. It is no small matter – just the purpose of education.

Each candidate was granted a page in a recent Time, pertaining to the cover story, “Reinventing College.” Like most politicians today, and I fear too many others setting the agenda for our country, both Obama and Romney draw a direct line from education to the economy.

OBAMA: “In the 21st century economy, higher education cannot be a luxury; it is an economic necessity every family should be able to afford….We can give 2 million workers the chance to attend their local community college and arm themselves with the skills that will lead directly to a job.”

ROMNEY: “Our economy is demanding more advanced skills and more varied skills every day. Our higher education system must be responsive to these demands if it is to offer students an attractive return on their investment, prepare them for successful careers, and help America compete in the global marketplace.”

The election has focused on “jobs jobs jobs,” and candidates have outdone themselves to tie everything else (including foreign policy) back to this concern.  But what Obama and Romney articulate is becoming the conventional wisdom: that the economy and our ability to compete in the global marketplace ought to be the goal of schools and colleges.

I believe this is foolish and dangerous.

“Tomorrow’s workers are in school today”

This quote by Marlene Seltzer is telling. It is an especially relevant topic this week as Denver will benefit Friday from presentations and discussions led by Jobs for the Future President Marlene Seltzer and Program Director Lili Allen (Hot Lunch, Donnell-Kay Foundation). The good work JFF is doing across the country, especially for at-risk youth and entry-level workers, might encourage similar efforts here in Colorado. I applaud two of JFF’s key goals: to see high school students graduate college ready and to focus on college success for students.

But I have questions for Seltzer. She often speaks “on systemic reforms in secondary and postsecondary education and the ability of the labor market to serve low-income workers, employers, and local and state economies.” I am curious to know where she finds the right balance between these two worlds. How does JFF distinguish between education and training?

An old teacher like me recalls the vocational education programs of the 1970’s and how they tended to limit – rather than expand – the possibilities for too many high school students. We read that JFF’s new Pathways to Prosperity Project in six states aims to ensure “that many more young people complete high school (and) attain a postsecondary credential with currency in the labor market.” Can we be sure that the Prosperity Project is not just old wine in new bottles?

But JFF is surely doing much good, so it is the least of my worries. Bigger forces are altering the balance between education and the economy, so that the classroom becomes subservient to the marketplace.

Consider the quote, “Education is the best economic development tool we have in our toolbox,” by Colorado House Minority Leader Mark Ferrandino.

Ferrandino was a co-sponsor of the Skills for Jobs Act (HB 12-1061) signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper last April. It directed “the Department of Labor – which collects data on job openings – to share that information with colleges, vocational schools and workforce training programs. Education News Colorado reported that House Democrats “touted it as part of their economic development package.”

The Bell Policy Center’s Frank Waterous testified for the bill, applauding how responsive it was “because it directly addresses industry’s need to fill positions in occupations and specializations critical to business growth and success. It is also responsive to the post-secondary education and workforce development communities’ desire to provide high-quality training that meets industry requirements.”

A Denver Post article found Metro State President Stephen Jordan to be a supporter, saying “the bill could prompt schools like his to tweak existing programs to better match the job market  – or to develop new programs entirely …” Jordan said he envisions adding minors or certificates that prepare students for the niches in their areas of interest that most need workers.

I would never argue that the workplace should have nothing to do with K-12 education. At the same time, leaders in government and business must know that when they speak to educators of our second-, fifth-, or eighth-graders as future workers who must learn certain skills to join the middle class – we feel they’re asking us to redefine the very purpose of education and of why we teach.

(And oh, by the way, does anyone recall the standards movement?)

Training kids for jobs here in Colorado

Over a year ago, Gov. Hickenlooper addressed the first gathering of the Education Leadership Council.

“In education there’s not a lot of mystery about what we need to do. We are not training kids for the jobs that are most likely going to be there for them… How do we begin to address that?”

My answer: do all we can to remember that a good education is not about training kids for those jobs. Two different matters. I doubt that, when Hickenlooper was himself a student, his teachers thought they were training him to be geologist-brewmaster-restaurant owner-philanthropist-mayor-governor! His example reminds us – we cannot predict what jobs will be there, or the jobs that we create for ourselves. All the more reason not to train for jobs, but to educate for life.

This is not the space to make the counterargument for the liberal arts. I simply offer a concise statement from St. John’s College, where I earned my master’s degree. The Great Books Program – by many standards, the most impractical degree imaginable. Not to me.

The best preparation for the workforce of tomorrow, for the jobs that have yet to be created, is a liberal education – the kind of education most especially found at the small residential liberal arts colleges across the country…. Graduates of the nation’s many fine liberal arts institutions are prepared not only for a diverse range of careers but for all of life’s challenges and opportunities… This education provides a fitting foundation for all pursuits in life. It is of life-long value.

In less highfalutin language, as we celebrate Election Day – civics education anyone?

First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.