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The Marva Collins Story: Bureaucracy in Education

Mrs. Marva Collins, a full-time substitute teacher in the “ghettos” of mid-1970s Chicago, found herself in a rather difficult decision when it came to how she could run her class. With rowdiness and pseudo-fights occurring in the hallways before the two minute and fifty second mark was even past, it’s obvious that the learning environment is out of control at best. Blaming the “bureaucratic red tape” and “apathetic teachers” on a horrific public education system – one filled with unnecessary field trips and countless false fire alarms with lack of disciplinary actions – the main problem with the education system comes from lack of student-to-faculty connections.

Marva Collins

Marva Collins, 1982.

Even today, the Department of Education lacks a one-on-one connection with how students benefit from public education. With teachers listening to administration, administration listening to district offices, district offices reporting to the state, and the state receiving funding from the federal cabinet office itself, it is easy for students to turn into mere statistics. This chain of command can ruin education entirely. That’s the main dilemma depicted in “The Marva Collins Story”. These kids, mostly “troubled”, “learning disabled”, and “challenged” aren’t even on the minds of many departments in society.

Think of it this way: in history, a battle is oftentimes summed up as statistics and numbers. Textbooks don’t oftentimes refer to the average soldier who died in conflict by name – and if they do they are always downscaled to just that: a name. The people who die in conflict are simply casualties. Statistics on a board that show just how much each side lost during the battle. It’s hard to look at every single solider as what they are: a human being.

With so many students resting in a single cluster of time, it’s easier to just focus on what matters: the statistics of it all. We can easily translate this to the modern-day education system. With so many students clustered into the average school-year, the Department of Education really doesn’t have time to worry about students as what they are: human beings that deserve a proper education and recognition for achievements. Schools receive funding based on state-and-federal test scores; which oftentimes leads to inner-city schools running down. In terms of sociology, poor education in an area leads to increased crime. Thus, we find ourselves in exactly what Marva Collins found herself in: a “ghetto” residing within an urban development. The public education system falling into oblivion due to the socioeconomic relations between inner-city kids – mostly full of minorities – and the out-of-touch bureaucrats.

Teachers find themselves in Marva Collins’ situation constantly. In specific schooling environments where the bureaucrats have proven to be out-of-touch and teachers have given up on following higher-up’s standards, the education of an entire generation can crash and burn in an instant. A school with low test scores and “bad” kids leads to the kind of situation portrayed in the film; where teachers tend to belittle students, and ignore the positive aspects that should always be in a learning environment. Standardized tests, low-wages towards teachers, and the refusal for bureaucrats to notice students as anything other than statistics and dollar signs can lead to a “ghetto” school scenario.

Marva Collins’ idea of solving the problem at hand was to completely change the system from the ground up by starting her own elementary school.

Realistically, every teacher can’t open their own school. However, the interesting way Marva decided to solve her problem was to refuse federal funding. Without recognition, her perfectly legal school couldn’t get off the ground without some severe work. However, without that funding, she was free to teach her way without being surrounded by teachers and administration who cared more about federal agendas than their own students.

By holding up her own classroom environment, the proposal to teach her own way allowed to motivate students that had long-ago abandoned the idea of learning due to them failing in the mainstream public education system. In a sense, teachers of any kind can hold up their way of teaching by balancing federal requirements and their own style of formatting. However, when surrounded by apathetic teachers and federal statistics, it’s a difficult challenge. But, teaching can be a difficult challenge – that’s the whole point of it. Unlike many teachers with harsher mentalities, Marva found it rewarding.

One mentality Marva had in her style of teaching, which I noticed towards the end, was how she had everyone working on different subjects that routed back to the same lesson at the same time. One specific scene that stuck out to me was how she had one girl do a math problem to figure out how much the gold in “The Venice Merchant” was worth, while a younger boy spelled a vocabulary word that stemmed from the discussion of the book itself and a third girl practiced geography by pointing out to Venice on the map. The idea to have all the subjects covered at once without keeping everyone on a path that was either too slow or too quick really made a difference. A classroom that had the “faster kids” – in this case the older girls – working on 2nd-grade vocabulary words would be labelled as “too slow”; while a classroom that had the “slower kids” – in this case the younger boy – working on 5th-grade mathematics or geography would be labelled as “too fast”.

If the chain of command could just do what Marva Collins found herself able to do, the entire public education system might be able to fall into a place that works for all students. As stated before, classroom environments that focus on federal agendas end up harming the public education system entirely. The kids that would need a slower pace end up feeling like they shouldn’t even try, while kids that would need a faster pace end up feeling like they’re not in the right place. Throw a low-budget, bad disciplinary actions, and a social realm that can be labeled as a ‘ghetto’ into the mix, and it’s an unstable reaction between an entire generation and their learning.

The style of teaching that Marva Collins had, alongside her constant push for student motivation and encouragement, is something that any teacher in any field should strive to adopt. When teachers fall backwards into federal agendas, the whole connection falls apart. When teachers give up on their students simply because of geographical locations and backstories, then the objectives of learning fade quickly.

Teachers shouldn’t blame their students or classes for a lack of education. The ideologies behind teacher unions and representatives matter more than ever.

To put a neo-Marxist perspective on everything here: despite having to deal with troubled kids in a struggling neighborhood, the only class that Marva Collins found herself hating was the bureaucratic bourgeoisie.



I’m a writer and historian. Simple enough, right? I enjoy philosophy, sociology, social psychology, politics, basic programming, statistics, and old books. Unlike the stereotypical leftist, I do not necessarily censor myself. I apologize in advance if you find yourself offended by something I’ve said; but I do enjoy hearing criticism and having debates.

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Joseph Kaminski
I’m a writer and historian. Simple enough, right? I enjoy philosophy, sociology, social psychology, politics, basic programming, statistics, and old books.


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