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I Failed the System: Representation, Meritocracy and Changing Education from the Top Down

The glistening ruby red dice bounced off the wall, “eleven!” I exclaimed as I won the round of craps, walking away one dollar richer. It was fourth-period geometry and the last thing on my mind were theorems or angles. From my vantage point it was all a waste of time because I sucked at math and wasn’t going to college.

Alex SernaAlex Serna

For me, all of high school was pointless. I was never going to succeed and I was pretty adamant on not caring to succeed. I was a drop in the ocean in the grandiose education system that I was a part of, from 16,025 school districts, serving approximately 50.4 million students in public elementary and secondary schools, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The educational ecosystem including advocacy, nonprofits, foundations, think tanks, management and technology organizations make the whole sector an expansive enterprise with exponential impact.

I was raised in a low-income Latino/a family, both my parents emigrating from Mexico in the 1970s and becoming U.S. citizens in the 2000s. The two things that I heard every day were “clean your room” and “you’re going to college.” Little did they know that their son was playing dice in class, getting detention for skipping class and bringing whiskey in his Frappuccino to Saturday School for skipping said detention.

“If you work hard, never give up and stay out of trouble you’ll be successful,” my dad used to tell me. A meritocratic system he thought would change my life, but I couldn’t fit the “college mold,” so I just gave up. I thought I failed the system and not the other way around. And, there are many first-generation, working-class youth giving up every day because they feel the same way. I couldn’t tell you why I felt that way back then, but now, I have a clarity that teenage me could never fathom. I know now that the education system failed me and needs to change from the top-down.

Two recent studies shed light on factors that contributed to my apathy, the apathy shared among so many youth and a call to change the education system quickly before many are left behind and our nation’s future is placed into peril. One can’t envision future possibilities, if they don’t see others like themselves making those futures possible. As a first-generation student, the pioneer crossing into the unchartered place called college, you don’t know what to expect, so you feel overwhelmed by the fear of it all and doubly so when you don’t know anyone like you who has graduated college.

In my 12 years in school, I only remember two Latino/a teachers, both of whom taught Spanish. Minority students make up 50 percent of all public school students, while 80 percent of teachers are White, according to the Department of Education’s The State of Racial Diversity in the Educator Workforce. And that lack of representation is evident at the most senior levels of education organizations, according to a recent study by NewSchools Venture Fund, Unrealized Impact: The Case of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.  It found that “white leaders and staff members are overrepresented while other racial/ethnic groups are underrepresented” with executive teams being 68 percent, CEOs 74 percent and boards 64 percent White.

There are many reasons why this matters and why it can help explain my school experience. You start to question why you think you’ll be the one to make it. In the classroom this matters tremendously. The Center for American Progress found that “teachers of color engage in the following practices: having high expectations of students of color; providing culturally relevant teaching; developing trusting relationships with students; confronting issues of racism through teaching; and serving as advocates and cultural brokers” in American’s Leaky Pipeline for Teachers of Color.

At the most senior levels, diverse, equitable and inclusive organizations share a higher likelihood of being, “fundamentally willing to acknowledge, question, and eventually share and/or relinquish power” which is at the root of recreating the education system to be more representative, according to the study by NewSchools Venture Fund.

It’s evident that as a system and at the top, change needs to take place, but what effect does the top have on the bottom? What took place in my mind as I sat in geometry class? The critical juncture between a system and its effect is very palpable by the way in which first-generation, low-income youths see the system and how they see themselves within this system.

My dad was wrong. If I worked hard, never gave up and played by the rules, I would be successful. The moment I realized that I had done none of those things, I gave up. If the system was fair, meritocratic and unbiased then what was wrong with me? I just wasn’t cut out to go to college. But, I was wrong, too.

A recent study, For Better or Worse? System-Justifying Beliefs in Sixth Grade… examined “how beliefs about the fairness of the American system (system justification) in sixth grade influence trajectories of self-esteem and behavior,” finding that “novel evidence that system-justifying beliefs undermine the well-being of marginalized youth.”

My dad’s notion and my internalization that a fair system and my perseverance would equate to success led to my sense of apathy, disillusionment and failure. Instead of realizing that the system was unequal, inequitable and unfair, I thought something was wrong with me. As the report’s lead author notes, “believing the system is fair puts them (youth) in conflict with themselves and can have negative consequences.” In the end, leading to lower self-esteem and increased risky behavior.

So, how does representation in education and a false meritocracy relate? More representative, diverse and inclusive classrooms, boardrooms, foundations, senior leadership positions, advocacy groups and think tanks keenly understand that false meritocratic narrative, so they work toward approaching it more directly because they’ve lived through it. As a program director for an education nonprofit, I know that system is not fair, I know that the deck is stacked against my students and that they have to work 10 times harder as a result, but they know that too. Next time I roll the dice, I will understand that the odds are against me.

Alex Serna is a program director for Breakthrough San Juan Capistrano, a nonprofit with the mission to help highly motivated, but underserved students become the first in their families to graduate college. He earned his B.A in American Studies from UC Berkeley, later enrolling at UCLA where he received his master’s degree in urban education.

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