Editor’s Note: In this installment of Author Profiles, Polite On Society speaks with Dr. Sharon Washington on her new book “The Educational Contract” and education matters in general. M.P.
1. What motivated you to write “The Educational Contract?”
The Educational Contract was initially my PhD thesis. As a teacher in a public school in New York City, I had come across an interesting dynamic at play between the parents and the school’s expectations of parents and I decided to investigate it in my thesis.
This is an excerpt from the book that explains my thoughts:
When I taught middle school, I had a practice in my classroom for dealing with misbehavior. If a student was acting out, I would stop in the middle of whatever was happening and call the child’s parent, and have the parent talk to the child right then and there in the moment. I rarely used this practice because generally there was no need. I had set my classroom up so that it was so engaging, students complained when they had to leave for their next class. Once when I employed my famous practice of stopping the class to call the mother of a student who was interrupting the learning of the others, the mother said to me: “Is he at school? Is he in class? To which I answered: yes and yes. Then she said: “Then why are you calling me?”
That statement symbolized the attitudes of too many of our parents given the type of school we had. In this school (which was in all respects a charter school before charter schools existed) we had some of the best parents in a public school system, but they did not have the same understanding about their role in the school as we had about their role in the school. When our school was threatened, they were there to protect us. They understood their power as a parent group and they used it very effectively; and they expected us as the school to be totally and completely responsible for all the learning that occurs with their children. Furthermore, it was expected that anything their children needed while at school–that included meals; uniforms; school supplies; behavior; and learning: exposure to new ideas, new places, class work, and, ironically, homework–the school provided it. The attitude was: If children are not performing well in school, it is solely the school’s fault. This is a common expectation of parents of urban schools of color across the United States.
2. What do you think of the current state of the education reform movement?
The achievement gap between black and white students doesn’t begin at school. It actually has already taken form by age two. However, it is also clear that the academic difference is not based in the physiology of students (it is not a biological-racial issue), because it is not something that exists at birth. It is something that is developed.
The movement to rectify this situation has been mostly led by people who do not have the same cultural or historical background of the people for whom the reform is designed to help. The danger in such a situation is that reformers will, and have sought to, import values from their own histories into communities with very different perspectives on the same values. So what we have is a lot of division in how we should go about making the changes that everybody aggressively needs to happen.
The onus lies with parents to begin a real reform movement. In “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” Paulo Freire says a pedagogy that does not include a role or responsibility for the oppressed to liberate themselves and their oppressors will never be successful. We have seen this prediction come true in the public school systems of the U.S.