An Unsentimental Education

A week on the inside with the students and teachers of Wayzata High and St. Paul Central.

Hedquist has been teaching at Central part-time for a year and a half, her first stop out of Bethel College with a degree in social studies. What she calls an "innate distaste for the snottiness, the my-parents-are-so-and-so attitudes in the upper ranks" keeps her calling roll in this classroom that is never, by any stretch, peaceful.

"There's a lot of pressure on teachers to produce decent grades," she tells me, under the general din. "It's no easy task in this classroom, figuring out how not to punish my kids for the cultural biases that train them to fail. The best I can do is equip them with a diploma somehow, which may be one way they can survive out there. Teachers like me, we develop a high tolerance for noise." At that she laughs, calls again to keep it down, and shrugs.

"What I do is give points for taking notes. Some students have a tough time copying off the board, so I let them copy off each other or off me. I let them use notes on tests. My main goal is not to drown them in information or facts per se, but to teach them how to use notes effectively. And how to pass the tests."

With test score averages routinely used as political fodder, and drop-out rates tied to a school's reputation (and, in turn, to future enrollment and funding), teachers across the board feel the heat to "teach to the tests" and to pass kids on toward graduation, whether they can read the diploma or not. Grading procedures vary like weather. Notes are available for borrowing, if the kids didn't happen to take their own. Test answers are fair game for discussion. Some call these methods a way out of the corner "regular" teachers and students alike get backed into. Some simply call it cheating.

Down the hall, social studies department chair Phil Mead teaches African American history at Central, a course not offered at Wayzata Senior. You'd be hard pressed to find a teacher in the building more committed to the open-door, equal-access-for-all idea of public education, which makes Mead a walking, talking sore spot in a school engaged, in his words, in the "problematic strategy of self-tracking kids" along economic and racial lines.

Mead's view of the situation goes like this: "Problem is, the majority of people in daily contact with these students--administrators, teachers--have middle class values. Suburban values. Regular attendance, passing tests, handing in written assignments, staying quiet and compliant--these values get rewarded. If you don't fit, you're out. That's the rule. Which makes it tough to do much more than a McDonald's education with some of these kids; it's like serving up hamburgers."

"Look," he says, leaning across the table in the faculty lounge to make his point, "students might memorize what's down on paper, but they don't, in the end, learn what's real. They learn textbook fictions about the world they're about to pass into, and many of these narratives are at odds with the true story: that certain groups have power, while others are powerless. But if we're really a democracy, the bottom shouldn't suffer from political rigging for the rich. Academically speaking, we're taking from the poor and giving to the wealthy. Here, and in the suburbs. What that means for the future is that all these we've put on the bottom will take it from those on the top, either by peaceful means or violently. If you teach and think historically, you'll already know this."

Back in Hedquist's classroom, time's winding down. John hands the teacher his test and asks, "Is number 8 right?"

"Well," she answers, "the colonists also had some powers. What were they?"

"I don't know. You're pushing me."

"OK. Let's back up. What did the colonists lose when New England was created?"

"Their land?"

"No."

"Their freedom?"

"No."

"I give up. It's not my fault." Period's over.

John gets up from his desk, hands in his test, and heads for the door. Ninth grade International Baccalaureate American History students, a stream of white faces and button-downs, file past him and take their seats. The teacher, who gives Hedquist a nod on her way out, begins by announcing that "when we get to the Revolution, we'll have to unlearn a lot of the stuff you were taught earlier."

He queries the class about what conclusions they picked up from yesterday's video. What were some effects of geography on human behavior? Elizabeth, a blond girl in the front row, raises her hand. Go ahead.

"Well," she says, "the terrain in the new world was harsh. And Europeans were afraid of the forest."

The Wayzata school district is building a brand new high school among the cornfields on the west edge of town. It's a long hike from the city. The way there is lined with new developments--Heather Run, Boulder Crest--many of the houses still in the framing stage. The site itself, a mess of muddy ruts and cinder brick piles, is announced by a sign at the entrance: School District #284 and City of Plymouth, it reads. Creating a new era together.

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