by Lane Towery │Thursday, January 24th, 2018
Over the weekend, The Gallup Independent published an editorial titled “Let the teachers teach.” Therein the editorial board claims that public education is slowed and dumbed down by focusing on our lowest students. They write, “there are students who go to this district and every district in this country who are not smart enough or just lazy [sic] to be realistic candidates for college education.” Apparently, the Independent believes there are different “classes” of students and that it is an “impossible goal” to bring “slow or lazy” students to the level of college readiness.
As a teacher, I consider this argument threatening to our students. The paper focuses, without any justification, on what it believes some students can’t do. In this, it invokes an all-too-common refrain in American public education that says some students are less capable and, therefore, less deserving. This worldview has often been utilized in combination with classist, racist, and gender-based prejudices to justify inferior conditions and simpler curricula for the poor, students of color, and young women.
As a society, we have decided that efforts like Native boarding schools were a harmful practice to be ended. And yet, inequities persist in our current system. In Gallup McKinley County Schools (GMCS) last year, for example, only 24% of Native American youth were proficient in reading compared to 57% of white youth, according to the district report card published by the NM Public Education Department.
It is possible to read that data and conclude that Native youth are less smart or simply lazy, but that is fundamentally wrong. Rather, the data is reflective of hard-set, historic inequities in the system. It is also a false and perverse logic that ignoring struggling students will improve education. To perpetuate these untrue views is harmful.
As educators, one of our important obligations is to disrupt harmful narratives when we hear them. One that I have heard far too often is that Native youth and families don’t care about education — a narrative upheld by The Independent even though they don't explicitly mention race. In my varied experiences — from home visits as a teacher on the Navajo Nation to organizing families as a co-founder of Six Directions Indigenous School — I have honestly never met a family that didn’t care about their child’s future.
The burden is not on kids and families to prove that they are deserving of quality education. To the contrary, the onus is on schools to motivate and support all of their students. The Independent applauds GMCS for what they see as an attempt to segregate high-achieving students via McKinley Academy. But the editorial board has it wrong. The district, rather than give up on low-performing students, seeks to eradicate limits on who has access to dual enrollment programs in founding the school — an effort I laud.
The promise of equality in American society is undermined when public education relies on biased perspectives to decide who most merits resources and high expectations. Our communities are strongest when schools see the full beauty, dignity, and potential in each of their students. I wish the Independent saw it this way.