Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The Impact on Education and American Life of Invasion

I know the title sounds harsh, but honestly I can't think of any other way to phrase it. I teach in a diverse district, in a diverse school. I honestly like all of my students as people, even the ones who behave in obnoxious teenaged ways. But you can't look at any school in the southern US without noticing how immigration, especially illegal immigration, has impacted the system. It became very clear to me this year, when I realized that the district in which I live is now majority/minority. Strangely enough, while that qualifies the district for some programs and mandates others, the district is getting further and further behind financially. There are a couple of problems that have created this situation and some of it has to do with illegal immigration.

The district in which I live straddles two towns and two counties. The older of the two towns has been around for forty years. It was one of the first suburbs, a bedroom community of blue collar workers. The area was zoned largely as single family homes and many of the original residents have bought and paid for their homes with the idea of having this, their largest asset, as collateral for a comfortable retirement. We are talking retired teachers and fire fighters and small business owners who must rely on their own to survive. The northern city is newer, but zoned for more apartments. Add to that the building of a new tollway and you have a corridor for travel that has attracted a number of people.

The first thing that happened is that the Dallas Housing Authority built public housing just outside the boundaries of these two towns. Although the facilities were nice, the children would end up in the neighboring towns' schools-which were already overcrowded. The cities begged Dallas not to build there, but the then head of public housing forced the issue into court. The results were that schools which were formerly suburban in feel suddenly had to deal with inner city crime. Drugs became more common as did domestic violence. As the prices for the nearby private homes and apartments came down due to the crime, these houses and apartments were bought and rented by companies that would then turn around and sublet the rooms to large groups of people. Many of these people were here without documentation-which is the PC term. I prefer to call it as it is-they have done something illegal by coming here without a visa or permit and therefore are illegal. In too many neighborhoods, rental houses were filled with multiple families or groups of young males. The burden on the schools in terms of free breakfast, Pre K classes, free lunches, ESL programs, health clinics was in no way compensated by the rent. Plus as the property values eroded, the tax revenue also dropped causing such things as road, sewer, water, street repair, park services to be forestalled or dropped altogether.

The increase in people who may have dangerous histories also increased the amount of crime, especially that related to gangs. Areas that had been middle class became war zones. People were either prisoners in their own homes or sold out for lower prices. In short, the massive uncontrolled influx of illegal immigrants has negatively impacted every social system. People who have lived their entire lives here are doing without basic social services because they can't even get through the lines. Elderly folks are seeing their investments in their homes vanish. This isn't a victimless crime, although there are those who would like to label it so. They are the same folks that like to scream "racism" and "bigot" every time they don't get their way. But wait a minute, this isn't about any specific race, this is about the SITUATION, which is one where someone has breached a law of another sovreign nation. In some countries they shoot you for things like that.

If we have finite resources such as water, food and land and allow uncontrolled overdevelopement of those resources, they go away, often never to return. That is the message environmentalists have been touting for decades. So why then is there so much silence from the same folks that eat organic foods and drive electric cars? I'd like to think it was simple naivete that they believe in their own superior way that the "simple peasant folks" would live some sort of primative back to the earth lifestyles. That isnt' why they are coming here. They could do that in El Salvador or Mexico or Ghana or wherever they came from. They want the glitter and glitz of the American Dream. I can't blame them for that but if you take a pizza and provide for a small crowd, it's not going to be the same sized slice if you provide for a larger one. If I were more cynical I would think that the liberal left was turning a blind eye to illegal immigration hoping to gain votes via Motor Voter and other silly acts that permit people to vote when they shouldn't.

But the endgame is this, when I speak to my friend who teachers ESL and is from Mexico City, she says that the kids coming in aren't just ignorant of English, but of Spanish, of reading, of math of everything except what they pick up on Univision. In short, they are chronically behind because their nation and many of their countrymen have shown that education isn't valuable. We spend tens of millions of dollars on bells and buzzers and programs and support for these students and all too often it's just a big stinky failure. They see no reason to learn because they can make a living on an underground economy that taxpayers are paying for. I have never begrudged someone who honestly needed help a handout, but this appears to more like locusts than wounded butterflies. It's time for Mexico to begin to take care of their own people. And by continuously allowing free passes into the United States, we are providing a social safety valve for our neighbor to the south. Things must change soon or we will be looking at an internal problem similar to what France is dealing with in regards to people who originated in the Middle East. When the USSR was in power, they always said they would conquer us from within. I am quite afraid that is what is happening now.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

School Day's/AP Tests/The Future

I just finished reading the linked article and then I looked at my blog and realized that in the frenzy that is late summer, I had totally forgotten to post anything. I think that is how it is with summer. From age five on we are conditioned into this two to three month period of mindlessness and then suddenly without warning, Krogers is stocking spiral notebooks on the endcaps and large envelopes full of forms start arriving. It's like a migration of children from the swimming pools and playgrounds into brick buildings where they live their lives away from parents and often it's a life that is totally unknown by parents. It's a child's world, where they make the choices and call the shots.

Every year about this time, since I was very young, I would get this clutching feeling in my chest. I always liked school. I usually did well in school. Okay, I did fine unless there was math. But the whole social environment of school always felt toxic. I never felt like I had friends. I never felt comfortable. And I truly did think that teachers by and large were the enemy despite my good grades. I can't even imagine what the pressure is like now. At the time I was in high school, pot and LSD were pretty much the only thing other than alcohol in town. Plus, 18 year olds could drink and DID drink. I was terrified of drugs and only drank occasionally to fit in. I don't have the rosy memories of high school that some people portray. In fact, I've only gone back to one reunion only to see the same people who were merciless and cruel in high school, were still in charge at the reunion. Sometimes I look at their prideful biographies on and I wonder where exactly I missed the boat.

I see kids today with far more burdens that we had as high school students in the 70's. Quite often they live with their moms and money can be an issue. They often work and are more motivated by their paychecks than by grades. While the top 20% are bright and ambitious, it's often for financial wealth over knowledge. In my daughter's 2003 AP classes, more than half the kids opted to major in engineering. These kids hold the same profiles academically as the kids who were Business majors in the 70's and 80's and Computer Science majors in the 90's. They don't do it because they love engineering, but because they want the money that they think will follow. It is as if the laws of supply and demand were magically suspended and they will still command huge salaries upon graduating. I think there are experienced engineers and techs in Silicon Valley that would beg to differ. And in many cases it's parents and counselors who are pushing these students into careers that they think will guarantee financial success. These are some of the same parents that helicoptered all through public school to cushion and control their childrens' lives. They honestly believe that this will insure happiness. I think we are on the verge of seeing major generational burnout with the X'ers.

I am also concerned with the pressure the upper echelon kids feel they have to attain in order to maintain status quo. These kids load their schedules with AP classes, volunteering, clubs, teams and work to the point of burnout. And quite often, the kid who makes 4's and 5's on AP Tests such as Physics, Chemistry, Calculus or even English may be denied credit unless it is outside of their major. I know of a student who should have had 21 hours of credit in these classes plus Spanish and Ecnomics. The university, claiming that it wanted all students within this major at the same level, only accepted the Spanish AP exam for credit. I can't help but recall the huge amount of time this student spent in and out of class working on these disciplines and althought there may be some merit to making a student take a course in a skill he's already mastered, it appears that it's a jobs programs for grad students that have to teach these entry level classes.

AP classes are no longer the bastion of the best and brightest, but instead many schools are pushing kids who do not want or cannot do the level of work into these situations. I wish I could say the purpose was to raise these students to a higher level, which is often the stated purpose, but I think the end game is that it looks really good for average yearly progress scores if more students take AP classes and exams. Don't get me wrong, I think if a student wants to pursue such a course, they should be given a chance. And as an AP teacher, I want as many kids in the seats as we can hold. But if we are permitting students who may not have the skills required for AP classes, at some point will we be forced into a position of offering remediation in these classes? And when that happens, paired with denial of credits by colleges and universities, what is the point of having an AP program at all? It points to gaming the test which could unfortunately lead to the same kind of lunacy that surrounds high stakes testing at other levels.

I don't want to sound alarmist on this theory, but when a list was released by a national magazine siting the Top 100 High Schools, one of the key criteria was the number of tests TAKEN, not PASSED. If this and similar stats are thrown in the mix, it's really easy for a district or school administration to pay outright for every kid to take AP tests and virtually cook the books when it comes to perceived status. I have heard rumors that this is already happening in other states. It worries me and it should worry many more people, because we are driving kids into professions they often don't care about. And workers who don't care about their work do a bad job and create more problems than they solve. This was not the goal of NCLB, but with the increased pressure on teachers, schools and students, that could be the outcome.

Please be aware, I am not anti-testing. Tests are a necessary evil. They reveal weaknesses and strengths and are essential for the purposes of meaningful evaluation. But this idea that we can control outcome based on testing and force kids into cookie cutter lives regardless of their natural abilities is one that will ultimately impact the economy. We need to look at something beyond the numbers and past feelgood articles and TV mentions for what is really happening in the schools. We have fixated on the idea that "all kids MUST go to college". While we want to open the doors for students really wanting a college education, the idea that every kid MUST go ignores the numbers of kids that drop out after the first year. Should colleges even have remedial reading and writing? Shouldn't a real college student come to college ready to go? Rather than have kids who go through the humiliation of failing at something such as college in which they had no great desire, why aren't we fostering the idea of getting everyone working by offering meaningful vocational programs? And NCLB doesn't take vocational programs into account. While you have the grandaddy of testing in Ross Perot claiming that high stakes testing will create workers for high tech jobs, there are other jobs that go unfilled due to the lack of skilled technicians. These are the jobs that are growing in scope because fewer and fewer people know how to actually do ANYTHING with tools. Think of what you paid the last time the air conditioner went out or the car stopped running? We need to revamp education to provide training in these skills as well.

All in all, I see myself approaching each year with a little more apprehension. Sure, we will have the pep rallies and dances. And the same smart aleck student will show up in class. And the same slacker will sit at the back of the room trying to sneak his IPOD out of his backpack. But as my own kids get older and I see younger kids coming into high school, I see more anxiety, more nervousness. There seem to be more IEP's and more parental emails. It's as if there's some menacing force driving these kids into exaggerated lifestyles. I dont' know if it's the media influence or simply a symbol of our times, but they seem so jaded and old as such a young age. They have lost that joy that kids have to learn something new. Everything is a faded replay of One Tree Hill. And in a way, I pity them and want to try to bring back that wonder into their lives. I guess that is why I keep teaching. Heaven knows I won't get rich, but maybe I can change a kid's life in a positive way. I would hope that is what all teachers at this point are planning to do.

Quote from youngest son-
"School will give me a chance to recuperate from summer..."-
-he's been riding BMX bikes every day, all day in 100+ heat since June.