Education for What and for Whom?
Louie F. Rodriguez
A common theme in today’s public schooling discourse is a focus on college and career readiness. This “new” emphasis has prompted significant attention toward more academically rigorous standards, vertical articulation across the PK-16 system, and the pervasive development of new curriculum and assessment systems. Striving for college and career readiness is not only a welcomed message from an equity standpoint, but is and should always be an obvious expectation of our educational system. Otherwise, if we weren’t focused on “college and career” readiness before, What in the world were we doing?
The challenges beyond education are apparent; a polarized country driven in part by a contentious 2016 presidential election, the ongoing struggle for water and land especially for indigenous populations, the explicit marginalization of immigrant communities and Communities of Color, and pervasive social inequality on most health, education, employment, housing, and general quality of life indicators. In this larger context, it is vital that educators who are committed to equity and justice in schools and society need to recognize that the purpose of education is more than meeting a set of standards. In fact, the challenges facing students, particularly Students of Color in today’s context requires educators to be intentionally responsive to our students and communities. While the importance of college and career readiness is absolutely vital, we need educators and students who are positioned to transform their communities and change the world.
In my own work over the years, it has become increasingly clear that today’s school, community, and societal conditions demand that our educational practices promote educational experiences so students are visionary, bold, critical, and emotionally engaged. Positioning these expectations within the context of pervasive social inequality requires our educational system to function differently. Below are three perspectives for educators, leaders, policymakers, and students to consider that push beyond the present agenda. My hope is that these perspectives inform and remind educators about some critical elements that should drive the educational endeavor.
Community: If our goal is to transform schools, communities, and society, today's curriculum and pedagogy need to center on the community. The community is defined by the social, political, economic, and cultural conditions that characterize and shape the spaces where we exist. The community is not just spatial but symbolic, spiritual, and historically-informed. We need courageous educators who bring the community into the classroom and take the classroom into the community. Students should be able to explore the roots of poverty and inequality in their communities, research health and educational disparities, and examine the role that community leadership and public policies play in creating or resisting these conditions. Teachers need the support of leadership to pursue this work and educational leaders need tangible resources to support teachers, students, and families. A stronger emphasis on community facilitates opportunities for students to learn about their culture, the local community context, and are provided with opportunities to listen and learn from transformative people in their communities. Students should be able to develop a critical stance with a perspective that they should be history-makers with their communities.
Culture: Scholars have argued for decades that culture is central to our identities as people, learners, and historical beings. Yet, many educational institutions, particularly those that serve historically marginalized Students of Color either ignore or deny the significance of culture or use it counterproductively. For decades, scholars have called for more culturally relevant approaches to curriculum, pedagogy, and student engagement. Yet the research-practice division has often led to mismatched approaches in educational practice. We can do much better at using culture in more complex and additive ways. For instance, students should be able to study and critique their own school's institutional culture defined in part by the expectations, relationships, and school’s receptiveness to students’ voices. Further, a Community Cultural Wealth approach, as Tara Yosso states, facilitates hope and possibility by reframing and viewing students’ families, cultures, and communities as sources of strengths and filled with skills and knowledge that can be used to transform learning in and beyond school. After all, for large segments of the student population, especially in places like the U.S. Southwest, our students have an ancestral culture, legacy, and civilization that goes back centuries.
Critical Consciousness: Paulo Freire, the Brazilian scholar and philosopher said the purpose of education should be for students to “read the word and the world.” While the college and career framing highlights the importance of academic literacy, learning to “read the world” is an entirely different kind of educational endeavor. Educators can use problem-posing approaches that stimulate dialogue at the classroom, school, and community levels. Questions to explore include, What is the difference between schooling and education? What is my role in improving my school? Community? What are the conditions that produce student success? Failure? Students and communities should be given the opportunity to examine how the structures, institutional cultures, and agency of people and institutions are driven by people, power, and politics. We can use creative classroom- and community-based projects that not only build academic skills but transform real conditions in schools and communities. We should also be learning from the transformative work already underway across the country, such as the Sacramento Area Youth Speaks (SAYS) movement led by Dr. Vajra Watson at UC Davis.
These approaches suggest that college and career readiness doesn’t go far enough. In fact, a focus on community, culture, and critical consciousness is necessary no matter who is in office or what “reform” is underway. But this principled approach should not be romanticized. It will come with significant challenges. People will resist. People have resisted. This is precisely why we need educators who are poised to embrace a more expansive understanding of the role of education in our society and confront the challenges facing our schools and communities. We also need people to recognize that education and the education system is not just something we inherit; it is our responsibility to build it as well. Our collective work needs to be driven by relevance, creativity, consistency, and justice. Visionary educators must acknowledge our power, embrace our agency, and transgress real and imaginary boundaries to collectively transform schools, communities, and society to meet the ultimate goal; realize education as a vehicle to build with our communities and change the world.
Louie F. Rodríguez is an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California Riverside. His work focuses on issues of equity and excellence in our nation’s public schools and communities, Latina/o/x student success, understanding student voice and school culture. Learn more at: www.drlouiefrodriguez.com