“If I Were A Poor Black Kid” Inadvertently Touches On Sad Education And Tech Truths

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You may have read the recent Forbes editorial by Gene Marks, entitled “If I Were A Poor Black Kid” (hilariously, the slug reveals it was originally “If I Was”), which entered instant infamy as a textbook example of a failure to comprehend privilege, or at least failure to communicate that comprehension. The internet has taken him to task for his “let them eat cake” attitude, recommending these kids utilize schoolwork-tracking websites and services like Khan Academy when many of them are busy avoiding being crushed by poverty and an inattentive school system.

There’s no need for us to add our voice to the chorus (this isn’t PrivilegeCrunch, though it may occasionally appear that way), but it’s a good time to take his rather tone-deaf recommendations and make something positive of them. Marks is right that technology and the web have a lot to offer impoverished kids and districts, but his application of them is upside-down and backwards.

I was very pleased to be able to highlight Imagine K12′s education startups, many of which made their debut at Disrupt. What struck me about many of them (struck me as practical, that is) was that they were aimed at the teacher and administration level, not at the students, who may or may not have access. Because access is not guaranteed for students, not by a long shot.

The way to go about applying technology to underprivileged kids isn’t changing what you require from students. Students must learn, true, but they must also be taught. It would have been more to the point for Marks to write “If I Were Teaching A Poor Black Kid,” though again, the race thing is a whole other issue and won’t be addressed by web services, so let’s leave it at “If I Were Teaching Underprivileged Kids.” The failure rate at inner-city schools and in poor areas isn’t a failing of the students, and advice should not be aimed at them. The greatest advancements of the last 30 years have been in technology and communication, and that needs to be applied from the top down.

If I Were Teaching Underprivileged Kids, then, I would go straight to my principal and supervisor and open their eyes to some of the powerful tools available for improving the ways kids can be exposed to information, tracked, and their educations personalized.

I would attempt to use a service like Remind101 to keep parents informed by SMS of kids’ work and school events, and to receive feedback and concerns without the hassle of conferences or phone calls. I would suggest to them the benefits of standardizing data collection district-wide in a tool like Eduvant, and investigate grants or funds that may make the transition easier. I would point out that money could be saved.

I would attempt to maximize the effectiveness of the few computers we had by modern means that students need not worry about, like screen sharing. I would contact offices and other schools to see if there were spare computers, no matter how old as long as they could play a YouTube video and run a word processor. I would petition to replace software like Word and Photoshop with free options like LibreOffice and Paint.net, and use the money saved (perhaps no more than a few hundred dollars) to pick up a few inferior netbooks, laptops, or tablets, anything that turns on.

I would reserve a week (or more) for the online investigation of and application for scholarships. I would set aside class time to examine the costs and benefits of college, vocational school, GEDs, community college, online courses, and other options. I would attempt to ensure my students had at least a basic understanding of web services, social media, online privacy, how they can be tracked, and other modern job concerns.

Naturally, all that is something of a naive fantasy. I went to an inner city public school myself, and saw the teachers’ portion of hardship myself, and I have friends teaching now who would laugh at these suggestions. If I Were Teaching Underprivileged Kids, I’d have enough on my hands just trying to keep my oversized class in line, get homework graded without taking it home (yeah, right), meet expectations for standardized testing, and motivate my kids to come to school in the first place. I wouldn’t have time to be reconfiguring budget tablets and installing open source software on dozens of school laptops.

But we’re in tech, and we have to be realistic about what we have to offer. It will take time for the dream of tech to come to poor school districts full of overworked teachers and pitifully insufficient resources. But making it available is the necessary first step. Unfortunately, we can’t take the next one ourselves, and until then this fantasy world of Khan-powered, cloud-tracked classrooms will remain just that: a fantasy world. But one thing we absolutely must not do is expect the work to be done by the people whom, by focusing on the bleeding edge, we’ve profoundly underserved for years. The tech gap is as real and consequential as the income, gender, race, and every other gap, and failure to acknowledge that is doing real harm.