Monday, March 15, 2010

The Education Game

I'm relatively young in my teaching career.  I was recently laid off due to my K-12 Charter school's inability to maintain adequate student numbers.  When I left I was teaching Earth Science, Biology, Chemistry and a couple of electives to largely low-SES, ELL students who generally refused to do their work and were entirely contented to hold D-averages.  Parent involvement was nil.

No union to speak of, nor contracts, the staff was entirely at the mercy of an out-of-touch administration (literally, their offices were 2 hours away) with a very top-down attitude.  Basically, they told us to jump and we asked how high.  In the little time that we did have that was not taken up by largely useless, state mandated yet effectively punitive professional development seminars that offered little practical help in our day to day instruction, there was no organized effort to form leadership teams to address the ever growing list of the site's issues.  The administration opted instead for a management-by-memo approach, in which decrees were meted out to much head-shaking and solemnity.

One wonders whether the administrators of failing schools are ever forced by the state to attend management seminars.  Our board of directors, lead by the school's CEO, seemed to have nothing productive to say about the way things were being run.  And according to the state, the message was clearly that the teachers were doing something wrong.

But what were we being asked to do?  Most of the kids were at least 2-3 grade levels behind in reading and language.  Their test scores were terrible, but when I proctored them there was an absurd sense that the students saw them as little more than an awful lot of silly bubbles to fill in - not to mention another reminder of what failures they had become.  The enterprise on a daily basis felt as though we were all playing our roles in some twisted play that we knew wasn't going to end well.

And of course for many it didn't.  I remember clearly a young lady of about 17, with an 18 month old son at home being cared for by grandma.  Yet all the girl wanted to do in class was giggle with her friends or sneak into the bathroom to play with her make-up kit.  I had started out my career teaching Kindergarten, and I knew full well what her boy would look like when he entered his first day of school.  Hart & Risley documented quite well what kind of experiences children of her SES group would be receiving.  Lareau explained why.  My own daughter, who just turned five, is already reading well into a first grade level.  Both her parents are well educated and have raised her in an environment rich in vocabulary, cognitive processing and higher-thinking skills.  My poor little Kinders would come in barely speaking English, and not knowing what letters or numbers were - in any language.  However, I often joked that low-SES native speakers were likely to score lower on English language assessments than their non-native peers from higher SES-homes, simply due to higher language exposure in general.

And so here we were, a dysfunctional charter school, the parents who did attend only doing so out of sheer ignorance.  They likely thought they were getting something special because of the "charter" status.  We had no lunch program, although most of the students would have easily qualified.  There was no special ed day class - parents were simply sent to the "district" school.  School policy had been to send low-performers there also, until attendance began to plummet and we took anyone we could get.   The staff was bare-bones, the elementary teachers were all saddled with blends and the high school had 6 preps at a minimum.  No PE, gym, or music teacher.  No librarian.  No library.

At the end of the year we all sat around waiting to see who would "disappear".  They liked to wait until the second to last week of school, usually on a Friday, to fire staff.  From what we could gather this seemed to be quite arbitrary.  Good teachers were let go.  Bad ones remained (I'm not sure what that says about me - I certainly kept my head down).  Replacements didn't seem much better.

So what is all this?  It's an anecdote.  But I think it is also indicative of structural problems that aren't being addressed among the new education reformers.  According to the NY Times, the main points of the new Obama plans to overhaul NCLB are thus:
  • replace NCLB's pass/fail school grading system, instead measuring individual students, attendance,  graduation rates and something called "school climate"
  • more vigorous interventions in failing schools
  • more incentives for performance
Yet simply taking that model and placing it on the school I describe would have had little impact.  We knew we were a failing school.  We had very high standards (although that means something entirely different when teaching Biology to kids who can barely read).  We certainly were accountable.

In fact, I could make the case that not only is this sort of thinking not offering real reform, it is a continuation, albeit slightly better, of policies that actually distract from a lot of good that teachers can simply do on their own without the "accountability", standardized testing, and school interventions.  But this seems of minor importance, and likely zero-sum.

I go back to the teen mother, whose child is mere years from repeating the cycle.  I go back to those young kids entering school for the first time and being so excited by it all.  The stories they were hearing!  The academic language and cool new discoveries to be made about the world.  Yet from day one they are so far behind that catching them up, in classrooms filled to capacity and one lone teacher doing his or her best to juggle them all, every single soul in the balance, takes a draconian level of mindless repetition and almost militaristic strictness.

Summerhill this is not.  I throw that out there not as an ode to that absurd and utopian philosophy, but as a reference point for how far we as a society have forced the pendulum to swing in the opposite direction because that is literally what it takes to take such underprivileged, underdeveloped kids and cram them into a system that is just fundamentally unequipped to deal with the task of correcting for, and then expanding upon what they haven't received from every other area of the social environment in their short lives.

These are the students that end up on drugs, in prison, with teen babies, broken homes, or at best working in some low-skill menial job, without health care, destined to live out their lives in a dirty apartment complex somewhere unremarkable.  This is the underclass.  This is what America stands against.  This is not freedom.  This is not equal opportunity.  This is social decay and it is wrong.

We as citizens have to decide whether or not we really want to leave no child behind.  Because that is what we are currently doing.  And that is what we are going to continue to do in the foreseeable future as long as we keep making excuses by blaming teachers for not being up to the task of correcting what we as a society have created.  What do we expect is going to happen when the poorest, most dysfunctional and disadvantaged among us are forced via the housing market into segregated, ghetto communities?  They all send their children to the local school, which is then by default comprised entirely of children from the most disadvantaged, dysfunctional members of society.

These aren't bad people.  Some of the Kindergarten mothers I met were some of the most warm and loving people I've ever known.  But they were maids, gardeners, cashiers, single parents, or uncles and aunts who babysat because mom or dad was high.  I had a 1st grader miss the first two months of school because a gang-banging uncle accidentally shot him in the stomach.  I had multiple students whose fathers were locked away.  They were doing the best they knew how to do.  Chances are, like the 17 year old girl in my class, they didn't have such a good start themselves.

Yet this population is expected to perform at the same level as my daughter, along with the other students in her lily-white neighborhood with higher income, college educated parents who read to them every night and take them camping and to tide pools.  And their teachers are expected to produce the same results.  Take a walk through a high school common area in a middle class neighborhood and then a poor neighborhood and compare the behavior and attitude towards learning of the respective populations of students.  One group is likely bored or nonplussed, but mildly chatty and for the most part aware of what kind of behavior society will reward them for.  The other lives in a battleground of anxiety and fear, or outright depression.  School for these students has meant failure and embarrassment.  For many what has saved them is finding ways to be proud despite their inability to perform how society expects them to.  They are proud to be fighters.  They are proud to disrespect authority.   Despite the shame that surrounds them, they manage to hold their head high, dress fashionably, and just make it one more day on their feet instead of their knees.

I became a teacher because I knew about social inequality.  I knew how unfair it was that just because you were born on the wrong side of town you were statistically destined to be scrubbing some wealthier man's dishes, or taking out his trash, or with the boss expecting you to smile and pretend that you don't scrape by month to month with no seeming way out.  I knew it would be hard.  But I wanted to be that cool teacher that made school interesting and fun.  I wanted to be the one that understood, or at least tried to, how hard life can be, and how oppressive the system can feel.

And I found those kids.  I was that teacher.  They used to come in to eat lunch in my classroom and feed the pet praying mantis bees they caught outside.  They wanted ask me questions about the world.  But I failed them.  Everyday, every class, I was lucky to bring them just a bit further than the allotted content.  But even that was a challenge, given that so many of them struggled so deeply with the material - and had no support at home.  And even then, their trajectory was lucky to get them to graduation, much less college.  So many of their friends had dropped out.  School was just a seat to fill, a place to be that wouldn't get them picked up by the police.

I had to remind myself everyday that in the end, it wasn't really me.  I wasn't Atlas, holding each of their lives in the balance.  If only.  I was just one man in a savage life that pulled at their young flesh, whispering in their ears that this wasn't the life for them.  Not only was it just a stupid game, but a game that was stacked against them, that they weren't going to win.  All I could do was my part, and if I was lucky maybe convince just a few more to hang in there just a bit longer, that they too could leave their neighborhood and attend college, to be the one that someone else washes dishes for, that gets their car washed, that they too could look further than a weekend into the future.

So what do these kids need?  There are a few schools that are able to do amazing work, but they aren't scalable.  They either rely on a large amount of outside funds or extraordinary teacher sacrifice.  Yet they offer fascinating glimpses at what kinds of things we might be able to do with some real social will behind meaningful reform.  Low SES kids need a lot more support than they are getting.  And it needs to start earlier, and it needs to extend beyond the walls of the schoolhouse.  Support services need to reach deeper into communities to connect with students and parents where they are at.  Neuman gives us some good road maps as to evidence-based programs that are doing this effectively.

I think NCLB has shown the public just how many of our schools are "failing".  But they seem stuck, at the moment, on seeing the problem as being based at the school, or teacher level.  But the research on communities that produce failing schools shows that our current model of school-based social reform is woefully unequipped to deal with the magnitude of the development task required.

We've thrown ever larger sums of money at the problem, with seemingly few results to show for it.  But throwing bad money at the problem not only isn't effective, it creates the impression that more money isn't the answer.  And money alone isn't.  Yet real reform will be costly - likely very much so, although much savings could be had in deconstructing our one-size fits all approach and opting instead to specifically target funds toward programs that are both necessary and effective.  It also never hurts to stress what the costs of social dysfunction are to a society.  Spending significantly early on will only save us exponentially more later on. 

In the end this is a moral issue.  And I think most Americans would agree that every child deserves a fair shot at success.  But that's a tall order.  It means nothing less than the eradication of generational poverty as we know it.  Much of our economy is not set up to operate without a considerable underclass of low-skilled workers.  We may effectively be tasked with the problem of what to do when every new year turns out an entirely well-educated and upwardly mobile graduating class.  But what a wonderful problem to have!  If nothing less, what this would mean for the electoral process is a radically transformative body of young voters.

This is the world I'd like my daughter to grow up in.  Where her fellow citizens are determined by more than what family they came from.  Where every child is taken as they are and guided in a loving, supportive environment that is neither punitive nor a quick-and-dirty band-aid over years of neglectful disadvantage.  Where public school is the welcoming hand society holds out to every new citizen, with the promise that when graduation comes they will truly be a life-long learner, inspired not by fear but by the natural joy that comes from exploring this fascinating world.  This is the American dream I have for her.  And for us all.

1 comment:

  1. I found this post and it's link on the New Republic site one of the best summaries of the problems facing the NCLB approach and, indeed the American school system in general. It was also a cri de coeur from a younger educator who does not want to adopt cynicism, yet sees the charade of inappropriate programming for students at risk.

    I have been a school Principal and would love to have you in my school. Alas, although I was educated in the U.S. system, I have spent my education career in the publicly funded school system in Ontario where the approach is far different--teachers are respected, effective provincial testing is used (but not in a punitive way), and the skills assessed and taught emphasize metacognition and deep learning and not the "Are you smarter than a 5th grader?" trivia so prevalent in schools across America.

    The results speak for themselves: although there are private schools, very few students are educated outside of the public system, our students consistently score better than U.S. students on international evaluations, and a higher percentage pursue post-secondary education.

    To be sure, we have a great many problems, but the attitude is different. A single illustration bears that out. I am presently doing work in a number of inner-city schools in Toronto who have many of the problems you so eloquently describe. The difference here is that, when test scores are low in these schools they receive MORE money and staff to address the challenges and not less. There is a recognition that at risk populations deserve more societal support and it is in society's interest to provide this as it may help to mitigate the generational cycle of poverty that you describe.

    Our work, which focuses on engaging kinaesthetic learners ( is well received because differentiated instruction is valued and understood to be the only way to help children in classes with the variety of needs and learning styles that are found in schools today.

    I don't know what the future holds for education in general, but the drill and kill approach is simply outmoded and ineffective in a world where content is available instantaneously. Look at your own daughter: What do you want most for her? Is it not that she continue to love learning, recognize her true potential, and use her skills and talents to make her world and that of others a better place?

    No doubt she believes she can do anything. The American schools of the future need to give that blessing to every student but, unfortunately, the paradigm that permeates most educational discussion shortchanges the on passion and cognition that are necessary to get there by fixating on the wrong things...

    I wish you the best of luck on your educational journey.