I’ve literally been the last person on a plane. I’ve heard, “Paging Passenger Roshaunda Cade” as I ran all the way through DFW to reach my gate and breathlessly begged to be let on the plane just as the attendant began shutting the door to the tarmac. I panted my way onto the plane, threw my backpack into the one remaining middle seat, and convinced the flight attendant to let me use the bathroom before we pulled out from the terminal, because my delayed connecting flight left me with no time to go beforehand. There was no way I was going to wait until the captain turned off the fasten seatbelt light once we reached cruising altitude and weren’t expecting any air disturbances (am I the only one who wonders why they have stopped saying turbulence?). I was last, but I still got to my destination at the same time as the people who were first.
What’s so important about being first? Is it a sense of entitlement? A desire to be better than others? To engage in conspicuous consumption (Thank you, Thorstein Veblen)? What drives Americans to be first?
Whatever the reason, this desire to be first informs US education just as it does air travel.
Some people can afford elite, private education for their children. And like private air travel, I can’t even wrap my mind around what that must look like and what advantages it affords.
Some people can pay for their children to be first. Maybe they can afford a home in a nice neighborhood with good schools. Maybe they can afford a second tier private education for their children.
Some people are like me — they send their children to public schools but have the privilege of money and time to participate fully in their children’s education and to allow their children to take advantage of co-curricular activities.
Some people are struggling in ground conveyance, barely making it to their destinations, if at all.
Making it to the destination is where air travel and the US education system diverge. Even though I was last on the plane at DFW, I still reached my destination at the same time as all the other passengers — the ones who were first, and the ones who spanned the space somewhere between middle and sweating from exertion to board. Some children never reach the destination of a good education; some reach it so long after everyone else that they have missed windows of opportunity to capitalize on their education.
Initiatives like “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top” rely on this very American notion of being first, even in their names. As a system, US education errs not in wanting the best for children, but in conceiving of best as a single destination to be achieved as quickly as possible. And that is an impossible task.
Rather than conceive of education as a common journey with a singular destination, let’s consider education an exploration that terminates only if and when the learner decides to conclude the quest. While I’m not saying that children should be allowed to quit school, I am saying that all learners deserve a voice in their education, its direction, its content, and its conclusion. Education doesn’t have to be the same for every child from pre-K through 12th grade, nor does school have to look like same-age children in grade-level classrooms. Cookie cutter education does not serve us well, not only because everyone doesn’t share the same interests and goals, but also because society doesn’t need everyone to be the same.
This bill of goods, that there is one thing that a good education looks like, is what we’ve been selling ourselves for nearly two centuries. And the way we’ve determined to differentiate ourselves in that system (because we don’t all share the same interests and goals and society doesn’t need all of us to be the same) is by being first and gaining the advantages of being first for our children.
This flaw, that a good education is a singular destination, permeates and perpetuates our collective thought and action in the educational system and causes us to make the same mistakes and enact the same disparities repeatedly. In attacking the symptoms of the problem, rather than the flaw itself, many people do much wonderful work, only achieving, however, small-scale, short-term solutions.
We can do better.
We invest in practices that will help some be first, but not in practices that will help everyone be their best. Instead of choosing to perpetuate a system that consigns everyone to a single destination that only those with the privilege of money and time can reach, let’s create a system where everyone can explore and fly.