The Culture Enters the Schoolhouse

The culture announces itself in our schools in myriad ways, of course, but sometimes certain events highlight realities in kids’ lives beyond school, the detritus of which they bring to the complexities of learning. In a recent period I encountered three  students who have recounted episodes of apparent rape, or at least a form of sexual abuse, at the hands of a relative or a casual acquaintance. For two of them the aftermath still seems close to the surface. Another seems less raw, but understandably is wary of reopening old wounds, probably sealed off but not resolved and still infecting her development into the adult world. I make my reports to the appropriate authorities, though it is not clear that any of the girls or their families will give up any names of offenders.

What is it – one of every three, in some studies one of every four woman and girls in the United States has experienced some sort of sexual abuse or rape at the hands of mostly acquaintances, family friends, or relatives. What is it, the same statistic, in the cultures of those countries, the many countries, whose academic test scores surpass our own? A question – I do not know the answer. In this country it is such realities that contaminate school progress. One of the girls I mention, for example, has fallen way behind in the graduation march. Has her most recent improvement in school been a part of her healing? Has her willingness to share her story with a teacher a breakthrough in an important way?

Where roughly half of all kids experience divorce at some point in their childhood, how do those convulsions affect their contribution to America’s benighted test scores? Do those countries that outperform us do so in spite of their own similarly abysmal marital statistics? Or is their hill less steep?

Questions. The culture walks in our school doors, brings its failures and its injuries with it, and displays its byways in the manner in which students process what we try to teach them.

The point for now: In our struggle to bring our kids to standard, we must diagnose the problems before we can effectively design solutions. Surely curriculum and instructional improvements are in order, but should we not also be asking what is lacking in the culture that walks in our schools on the backs of our children? When we ask schools to improve performance, as well we should, might we also recognize we are asking schools to address deficiencies in our culture?


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