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Johnny has learned that 2 + 2 = 4. With the aid of his textbook, teacher, and parents, he has memorized this fact. Later, he will build upon this fact, progress through school in his upper middle-class neighborhood, go to college, and take his place as a professional, like his parents. Juan has learned that 4 – 2 = 2. With the aid of his four cookies and the bully who took two of them, he has learned this fact. He will progress through school in his lower-class neighborhood, enrolled in a basic high school completion program with a possible vocational component, and take his place in society as a semi-skilled worker. In the scuffle with the bully, one of Juan’s remaining cookies broke in half. He wondered if two might be halves of one, but quickly dismissed the thought as stupid.
The differences in the educations of Johnny and Juan have been typical for years and are clearly outlined by Mike Rose, in his essay, “I Just Wanna Be Average.” Through a mix-up in placement test scores, Rose was put in the vocational track of his high school program and thus joined the ranks of other disenfranchised students who, placed in this lowest track, became the unruly misfits of the institution, and from whom little intellectual growth was expected. After two years, the error was corrected, and Rose joined the ranks of the college-prep track, woefully lacking in the skills and knowledge necessary to compete. Fortunately, an English teacher/mentor renewed Rose’s belief in his own abilities, and, with unusual
interventions, was able to get him into a prestigious university. The experience in both educational “worlds” during high school, however, gave Rose important insights into tracking, expectations, teacher behaviors, and the pervasive impact of these on students’ lives.
“Students will float to the mark you set.” (Paragraph 11) Teachers expect less of students in remedial and vocational programs, and students respond accordingly. Assuming the identity of lower track status, students see academic challenges as “stupid” or “bullshit;” faced with the same content, skills, and problems at which they have failed before, there is no new challenge, no excitement, and no motivation. “There is, rather, embarrassment and frustration and, not surprisingly, some anger in being reminded once again of long-standing inadequacies.” (Paragraph 23) In short, students will shut down intellectually and ignore academic stimuli; they will laugh at their poor grades; this behavior “…neutralizes the insult and the frustration of being a vocational kid and, when perfected, it drives teachers up a wall, a delightful secondary effect.” (Paragraph 18) Rose’s epiphany regarding this generalized malaise among the vocational track students occurred when a classmate, during a discussion, stated, “I just wanna be average.” (Paragraph 15) He perceived himself as completely inferior, and his aspirations had been so lowered that even “average” seemed unattainable. Looking back, Rose came to understand that many of these students were quite bright; they simply chose to “educate” themselves in places other than school.
Rose’s solution to such inequality lies in changing educator behaviors, and his case is strong. When schools deliver the same curriculum to all, everyone feels worthy; when teachers approach their subjects with enthusiasm, become inventive in their teaching, and hold high expectations for every one of their students, more will actually achieve; when teachers set goals of mastery for all of their students, not just the Johnny’s in the classroom, then the Juan’s will be encouraged to wonder if two might be halves of one.