Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Another Post About Me Hearting Public Education

MStanger posted this on his Facebook Page today: one of the few media sources I've read which is highly critical of the recent love affair with charter schools sweeping the country. Indeed, charter schools are about the only bi-partisan thing happening in this country right now, oddly enough. It takes a bit of time to read it, but it is wonderful, and worth passing along to every public school teacher that you know and love. My guess is that there are quite a few. My guess is that every one of you can cite a public school teacher as having had a remarkable effect on your life.

The posting was followed by a number of "yeah but" comments, and I started to respond, but there was just too much to say. So rather than clutter his page and quite possibly start an argument with some people I really like, I'll attempt some thoughts of my own here.

One of the lines of conversation on the thread went like this: that charters aren't actually necessary where there is open enrollment and school choice. I happen to live in a town with the most bizarre education system I've ever seen and my take is that open enrollment/school choice lends itself to a community that LOVES charter schools. The more the merrier!

I'll explain: the charter movement has been popular here because each parent/kid gets to attend exactly the type of school they want. Spanish, French and Japanese immersion campuses. Science academies. Art academies. Even the public high schools have mostly jumped on board and created mini-schools within each campus with different start times and isolation from other groups. If you have a curriculum you find and like and can get even 100 people to agree with you? Great! Apply for a charter. Our city is more than happy to give you money for a start up, despite the fact that many public middle and high school grade classes have upwards of 40 students in them. Oh, and don't forget about the very strong home-schooling movement in this area either. After ten to fifteen years with this local experiment, here are some of my observations.

Any time a teacher looks at a child wrong, the parent begins "shopping around" for a new school. I talk to parents all the time who are filled with nothing but criticisms and anger for previous schools they've attended, generally because of a single incident. (One mother pulled her daughter for the school's expectation that 30 absences for "illness" would be verified by a doctor.) Rather than attempting to sit down with concerned parties and solve issues in a way that is dignified and reasonable, the kids are pulled and sent some where else. The take home message, for the child, of course, is that your parents will always save you. That you only need to listen to adults when they say what you want to hear. That if you are unsuccessful at school, it can't possibly be your fault, or have anything to do with your parents. It must be the school's fault. But especially the teacher's fault. The long term message sent to these children is that quitting is the most effective answer to a difficult situation.

I have never been around so many young adults who have negative things to say about their teachers. In a town where competition for teaching positions is as competitive as any I've ever seen, I cannot believe that all of these teachers are truly awful. That they all took a pay cut and added classroom numbers this year because they just really hate kids. That they have some power-hungry, socialist agenda to ram down kids' throats.

I know kids in their mid-teens who have never moved, but have attended five or six different schools. Including, of course, the years of non-school that too many people call home school. The 12 teenage girls in my ward, an area of about 10 square miles, attend 3 different middle schools and five different high schools. There is no continuity in our church group, but neither is there any continuity in their neighborhoods.

When kids go to school where they live, and the teachers live in the same area, the entire community becomes invested in whether or not that school is successful. Parents and kids know what is going on with the other folks in their neighborhood because they have grown up keeping an eye on the local school, volunteering there and being involved. Neighbors know one another, because the school gives them a sense of shared purpose and involvement. The "buy-in" (A Greg Mortensen term) is less about property taxes and more about human resources--time, compassion, loyalty. When communities get attached to their local schools, they can have reasonable conversations about school board members, property tax issues and curriculum change. They see first hand how occasional tax hikes affect their community in positive ways and they know the people making decisions for the schools, and by extension, their kids. They might choose to run for this position themselves.

The article cited above is full of interesting facts, but the one I found the most telling is that a super-majority of Americans rate American education, as a whole, as being lousy and broken. However, the same super-majority (nearly 80%) gives their OWN public school a rating of A or B. Pretty damn good. You bet that inner city schools are failing regularly, but it is because inner city HOMES are failing. Even the best trained and most caring teachers in the world cannot overcome the direst circumstances for each child. It doesn't mean they won't try. Public or charter, it doesn't mean they won't try.

Without addressing the whole child failure-paradigm, we cannot fix it. Education is certainly one component, but health care issues need to be addressed, early childhood intervention, parenting, poverty, hunger. . . . kids who are falling apart before they even get a chance to meet that caring teacher in that new, beautiful school. I've looked into the eyes of 12 year-olds who, through no fault of their own, have seen enough despair and hopelessness to fill five lifetimes. There is no band aid for this problem. There is no idiot political solution that is the equivalent of "just pull yourself up by the bootstraps." The best system cited in the film--the Finnish--is also in the society Americans would term as being the most socialist. The least private. The most public. Is this ironic?

The truth is, when you run the numbers, there are just as many failing charter schools as there are public schools. Maybe more. It is also equally true that public schools can take lessons from the charter's philosophy toward smaller classes and hiring the best teachers. Abandoning one to give money to the other will only fix one school at the expense of another. And it has no hope of fixing the system as a whole.

I can promise you this: public or private or charter , your kids' teachers care. A lot. So much that they may spend time every day with your kids at the expense of spending time with their own. They work under enormously stressful conditions for pitiful pay. A mostly female workforce is constantly reminded by mostly male bosses and politicians that they signed up for a 3/4 job that is seen as barely more professional than any other public service. Besides being beholden to an employer and politicians, parents also claim some authority over teachers (what do we pay your salary FOR???). On any given day, your child's teacher is working to please a whole lot of different people, knowing that her whole job might hinge on a single mistake. The media bombards kids with images of stupid adults, particularly teachers, and parents allow them to watch such programming from an early age and then wonder why they have no respect for anybody or anything.

American kids aren't failing because of stupid teachers. They are failing because laziness and entitlement has become the norm. If you think I'm talking about inner-city kids here, think again. Nobody wants to major in engineering, because it is hard. They major in business because they want to make money. The only product we seem to manufacture in America anymore. Wait, scratch that, we manufacture plenty of cynicism also.

As I ponder taking out a loan to go back to school, so that I might have the tools to re-enter a profession I love, I am so disheartened. I grew up with such respect and admiration (read: hero worship) for the teachers who gave me so much. Once upon a time I had pretty decent grades. I might have been anything I wanted to be. I chose teaching because I'm passionate about education as a tool to overcome so many social ills. Because I believe in equality and democracy. Because I love America. And now, to be standing on the edge of the next part of my life, and hear so much invective for public school and see the competition for jobs coupled with some of the worst working situations I've ever seen for teachers, I feel that cynicsm creep inside of me also.


FoxyJ said...

One of the things I love about our neighborhood is that the school is small and mostly neighborhood kids. There are only 2-3 classes for each grade, and many of the teachers and staff live in our neighborhood. In fact, my daughter's teacher grew up in our ward and told me that she had seriously considered buying our home before we did. I love going to school events and feeling that sense of community.

At the same time, however, I have noticed that a significant number of parents take their kids to charter schools instead. I don't know them well enough to ask their reasons, but I wish they would just stick around and get more involved in our local school. It is fairly average, but the teachers and staff all work hard and they really do love the kids. I wish I knew why the parents around here are so worried about the school and what specifically they would like to change. I admit that part of the reason why I send my daughter is laziness--she can walk and I don't feel like driving her to and from school each day. But it's also because she can be with her friends and neighbors, and I trust our local school. Like you, I've noticed a lot of distrust and cynicism about schools and I don't get it. I grew up in some rough areas and had a few bad teachers, but generally school was a positive experience for me. I also don't expect the school to be in charge of all aspects of my kids' education; they still have plenty of time at home for learning about morality, reading, etc. I also agree with your point that schools will never be strong until communities are strong. And we need to value teachers more, both monetarily and just in the way we treat them. It is a hard, hard job.

Melanie said...

I spent 6.5 years going to an elementary school that served a pretty poor population. There were a lot of social issues and a lot of disruption in class. I had some truly excellent teachers, I loved learning, and I loved school. But by the 6th grade the behavior of the students in my class and the disruptions had become so bad that I was traumatized and spent mornings sobbing before going to school. Finally my mom transferred me to another (public) school in a wealthier area, where I had to do a lot of work to catch up academically, despite the fact that I had been always been at the top of my class at the other school.

I totally and completely agree that most of the problems in public school are rooted in the breakdown of the home. The reason why I've thought of charters as good ideas (some, not all) is because the parents of those children are usually involved enough to think critically about their children's education. And many times that level of concern indicates much more about the type of home, behavior, and expectations associated with a child.

I agree that too much choice fragments our communities. There's certainly no easy answer to "fixing" the education system, but it is definitely something we can keep working on.

heidikins said...

As a public education employee I pink puffy heart this post. With sparkles.


Science Teacher Mommy said...

Melanie--obviously your situation is different than the one I am talking about here with parents transferring over any "little" issue. A traumatized child is anything but little! Interestingly enough, the article likewise identified your anecdotal knowledge--the thing that affects test scores the most is income. But the truth is even deeper: in general, families in less crisis are doing better financially too. Education is only one piece of the poverty pie. Without addressing a variety of problems as a whole, fixing one part won't make a big difference.

AmyJane said...

This is really, really well said. I have a really hard time listening to parents and kids who usually don't know that I was/am a teacher when they rant and rave about things. It's hard to stay calm and say things well, but you did here.

Sherry said...

One of my best friends in New Zealand was a public school teacher. She mentioned to me one day that she disliked when parents said, "Well, my child acts out in class because he is so bright and he is bored." My friend wanted to say (but didn't), "Your kid is actually pretty average. And there are several children who are smarter who do not act out in class." I think that too often parents are looking for anybody to blame for the child's failures or problems, besides of course themselves or the child. Sure, the school or the teacher are the problems sometimes, but I think most of the time the fault is with the child, and whisking a kid out of school any time a problem arises seems very foolish to me. But I suppose for many parents it is easier than actually teaching the child correct principles.

kristin said...

I recently read a book "Crazy like a Fox" by Ben Chavis that talks about a horrible charter school in Oakland, CA that he turned around in a few years to be one of the best middle schools in CA. I found his methods very interesting and appropriate for his group of students. He does not tolerate foolishness from students, parents, teachers or anyone. After reading your post, I thought you may be interested in reading it.