In America, our most prized possession is perfection. It is the cash crop the country sells to its citizens and people across the globe. That’s why when you pop a can of Coca-Cola, you “open happiness”. Growing up, some of us were pushed “to be like Mike” (Michael Jordan), and to immortalize his slam dunk. Others must perceive us as impeccable, having it all together, and being the best at it all, if we are to convince them of our value.
Perfection might have intrinsic value to the person that aims to cultivate it, but for the most part, it seems to be something we create for others to enjoy. What if you weren’t “the best” at your job – would that be okay with you? No, because usually that means professional suicide. Companies thrive (increase sales, dominate industry sectors, outperform the competition) when their employees are “perfect” or “the best”. So often there are rewards set up for being widgets rather than being people with flaws, who at least try their best. The result can be vicious competition against one another, to prove oneself more perfect than the other. No one, however, is perfect in and of themselves. Human error is bound to occur, whether we like it or not. The question is what do we do to rectify it.
The question is also what this has to do with education. In a workshop I led recently with parents, I asked them to look at a chart (see below) and answer the following: which school would you enroll your child in?
Every parent, except one, went for the obvious choice – School C. After it was revealed that School C was a private school that charged tuition, some parents reluctantly chose School B. The one exception let’s call her Jaime – was the only parent who stuck with her initial choice – School A. She gave her reason why:
School A is trying its best. Yes School B might have a higher rating by the DOE, but it’s doing worse than other schools, and the school environment is horrible. School A is at least trying in school environment by making the school safe and clean for its students.
I revealed that School A was a local charter school, while School B was a local traditional public school. Parents were shocked that a regular public school could, according to the DOE, be outperforming a charter school overall. However, the school environment rating was not surprising to them. “There’s no discipline in these schools nowadays,” one grandmother said. “Children run the place reckless, but how they gonna actually learn anything in that environment?”
“So many of you said you’d still choose School C, even though it charges tuition.” I shared with the parents how much the tuition costs. “How many of you would be able to find the means to pay for this?”
In short, many of the parents wanted the highest performing school, but weren’t fully sure how they’d afford it, and were grieved by this. But Jaime tried offering some words of encouragement: “It’s not just about what the school does for your child. Maybe we need to hold the fire underneath the school, when it’s at least trying, and get them to get better instead of staying where they’re at. At least if they’re trying.”
Education has become one of those industries in the business of selling perfection. When it comes to serving communities where people have historically been the working poor and are oppressed politically and economically, most would argue that access to perfect schools is a right earned by these communities. The school choice model was developed and is designed based on this rallying cry. Yet schools like School C remain located in neighborhoods most families don’t even imagine stepping foot in, and continue to do way better than any school serving the marginalized.
What can parents, teachers, community members, activists do to rectify this? We certainly can’t keep perpetuating a narrative of perfection if we’re not delivering it. That goes for advocates of the charter school system, as well as those stressing the importance of saving our traditional public schools. I propose this equation:
People aiming to be their best + People working with an open heart as a team player = The best guarantee of perfection.
Instead of pitting ourselves against one another, to fill more seats in one school, or to advertise one school as the best, why don’t we – education professionals and parents alike – work as a team to better ensure all children attend the perfect school any human being can possibly aspire to develop.