During my first year of college I became conscious of and outraged by the inequality of the public education system in the United States. I was introduced to shocking statistics about racial, ethnic, gender and socioeconomic disparities in educational access and outcome. I found out that Minnesota has one of the largest racial achievement gaps in the nation, with less than half of Black and Native American students graduating from high school each year. I learned that public education in the U.S. is more racially segregated today than it was 40 years ago. I watched the film “Waiting for Superman” and heard how prisons are using the fourth grade reading scores of Black boys to determine how many prison beds will be needed 10 years from now. I gained an awareness of funding policies and how schools’ reliance on local property taxes means that those that need the most often get the least. I believed, and still believe, that this is not okay, that all students deserve schools that can educate them and give them the tools they needed to achieve their goals. I was frustrated with the shortcomings of our public education system, and with the lack of avenues I saw available for me to get involved in this important issue on campus.
I met a handful of students my sophomore year who were interested in starting a group on campus called Students for Education Reform. SFER is a national organization that prides itself on being “a student-led movement to end educational injustice.” The idea of starting an SFER chapter at Macalester seemed like exactly the opportunity that I was looking for. I quickly became involved and took over as Chapter Leader for our first full semester of existence in the spring. I was invigorated. This was an opportunity to meet people who were passionate about the same issues as me, to learn about different topics and policies, and ideally, to make positive change in the lives of young people.
However, as our Macalester group was growing and learning, SFER national was going in a different direction. As my views on educational policies became more complex, SFER’s mission and vision for the organization became more restrictive and problematic. Instead of emphasizing the importance of critical thought and discussion in creating effective positive change, immediate and often uninformed action was being celebrated and rewarded. SFER was developing a very narrow minded model for change that focused on direct political action for causes our members were often either unfamiliar with or uncomfortable with. Not only were our concerns not being heard, but our desire to reflect on the potential negative ramifications of our political action was seen as a problem and a flaw in our school’s chapter. When I wanted to engage in a conversation about the potential systemic harms of Teach for America and other similar organizations, I was met with rhetoric that was meant to silence dissent. It was implied that if I did not support TFA, I did not support progress, justice or equity. This, of course, is a false dichotomy. Two people can both be well intentioned and want to reform our public education system and also have incredibly different visions of what that reform should look like.
It is important for organizations searching for solutions to complicated systemic problems to create space for disagreement and dissent, and this is why our group has decided to disaffiliate from the national SFER organization. Moving forward, we have renamed ourselves Macalester Students for Educational Equity, or MacSEE. As we distance ourselves from SFER, MacSEE hopes to create spaces on campus for open and honest discussion about educational policy, ideology and change without limiting ourselves to the dominant vision of reform that exists today.
We believe that SFER’s singular focus on fast-paced political action limits critical thinking and discussion and that their model for political change ignores that student activists have differing experiences that make them better suited for different roles in working towards educational equity. As a White student who came from a well-funded, homogeneous high school, I know that my voice is not always the voice that needs to be heard in conversations about educational equity and that often the best thing that I can do is to create space for other people to speak about their experiences of injustice and structural oppression. However, SFER celebrates the students who take up the most space, while shaming those who value listening and learning for not doing enough “for the kids.”
Because of the language SFER uses to frame their work, there is little room for disagreement and discussion. They have established a discourse in which you are either “for the kids” or you are on the side of injustice and an impediment to progress everywhere. When we endorse the idea that there is one kind of progress we discourage critical thought and productive disagreement. When SFER employs the phrase “for the kids,” what is often really meant is something more along the lines of “for a neoliberal model of public education reform.” While many members of the organization may hope that this approach will, in fact, be beneficial for kids, by equating this particular model of change with being a well-intentioned advocate for social change, SFER is creating an environment where students are bullied into supporting harmful policies under the guise of progressive idealism.
Next week we will be hosting a series of events, as a part of our annual Education Week, that we hope will expand the conversation about what changes to our public education system can, and should, look like. On Monday, March 31st, at 8pm in Markim Hall we will be hosting a stop on the national Teach for America Truth Tour, where a TFA alumna and local teachers union officials will be talking about the ways that TFA perpetuates inequality and damages our education system. On Tuesday, at 12pm in Carnegie 06A, we have organized a panel discussion where students who have attended a variety of different types of schools will share their experiences in the U.S. education system. On Wednesday, at 6:30pm in the Cultural House we will be screening the film “Papers,” which exposes the challenges that undocumented youth face when they turn 18. On Thursday, at 12pm in Olin-Rice 150, we will be hosting Deidre WhiteMan, who is currently in the process of opening a Dakota and Ojibwe language immersion school in Minneapolis and will talk about the importance of indigenous cultural education.
For all of these events MacSEE hopes to attract an audience with a diversity of opinions, with the intention of creating meaningful conversations about the future of public education, with the goal of creating a more equitable system. We hope to see you there.