While I was shooting B-roll footage on the South Side of Chicago, a young man approached and asked what I was doing. I explained I was gathering footage for a short documentary on the new “Culturally Responsive Teaching and Leading Standards” that the Illinois Board of Education had approved and was on the verge of being ratified by the Illinois General Assembly. He boiled it down to, “A documentary on education?” He then told me that he had been kicked out of two high schools and never graduated. His mother worked two jobs to provide for him and his sister and he never learned how to read.
As a parent of two children, I asked him how this was possible. Didn’t his teachers in the Chicago Public School system know that he couldn’t read? He shrugged and asked me if I had any work to give him. He was in his mid-20s, looking for work in the middle of an icy, sunny day. I told him I was sorry and that I was leaving for the airport in two hours. Used to these kinds of turn-downs, he grinned and said it was all right. He then pointed to a mural on the side of an abandoned building and said that would be a good shot.
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I set up the camera and thought of how far this man’s world was from the new standards that the education leaders in Illinois believed would uplift Blacks and shrink the performance gaps between Whites and Blacks. While most people certainly would have no issues with teachers being “culturally competent” and “responsive” to students, what struck me when I first read the new standards was there was no mention of the word “merit.” These new standards would require teachers to subscribe to “progressive values” and “hold high expectations in which all students can participate and lead as student advocates or activists.” (The rule-writers recently changed “progressive” to “inclusive” but every aspect of the new standards reflects progressive politics.) How would these “high expectations” help this young Black man out looking for work?
When he had initially revealed his illiteracy, there was a sense of shame in his expression. If he felt shame, where was the shame of the many teachers and administrators that looked the other way as he moved up from grade to grade? The saddest part is that he is far from alone. In 2019, only 37% of third-graders in Illinois demonstrated grade-level proficiency in English-language arts, and when it came to math only 41% could demonstrate grade-level proficiency. Why would the state of Illinois consider new standards when it failed to uphold the most basic and universal of education standards?
The disconnect between the progressive ideology driving these new standards and the realities on the ground could not be starker. After I filmed the shot that the young man recommended, I asked him how he felt about the education system wanting to encourage students to become activists. He laughed and said that was easy. “Anyone can march but not everyone can get a job.”
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As I watched him depart down King Drive toward 62nd Street, there was a sense of sadness. There was much to like about this man. He had asked me for a job and it is likely he has asked many others for a job. The fact that he was willing to humble himself and ask a perfect stranger for work speaks to the current desperation in his life and it also speaks to his innate knowledge that he knows he needs a job to survive in this country of ours. That’s the truth that these new education standards are in danger of betraying.