Friday, January 28, 2011

What's Wrong With The Schools

I teach high school (so you don't have too *rimshot*)
I teach in a fairly affluent suburban high school. Considering the demographics and the money, we should have an entire population of candidate for a Rhodes Scholarship.
But we don't.

There's a great deal of second guessing on why not, but I think the problems with our schools are wide and deep. They range from clueless parents to academic structures to the very halls of government that demand so much for so little. So let's take a look at each level.

First there are the parents. Most parents want the best for their children. It used to be that meant a strong family, a good character and a solid foundation of knowledge. Now it's an IPhone. Or a car. Or a vacation with their friends in a tropic resort. I have to seriously wonder about the mental abilities of parents who are either so naive or so needy that they allow their children to stay in hotel rooms with their friends after prom or provide "a safe place to drink" by supplying liquor for high school parties. Do they honestly believe that because these are the events they know about that nothing else is going on? I promise you, these kids talk. They think teachers and administrators don't hear their little references to various activities. It used to be we would pick up notes. I remember a particularly specific and graphic note written by one of our cheerleaders.

But then again, kids have always hidden things from parents. I don't recall parents weren't so willing to be ignorant. Mine certainly weren't. The fear of being caught was one of the main reasons I never smoked pot. But these I can leave messages regarding a student on the phone only to find it was never recieved. Sometimes it takes going throught five or six different phone numbers to even find one that works. One time a number I called was for a recreation center fifty miles away. I can even send emails only to have them erased. Here's the problem. Teachers can't tell a parent their kid is in trouble without risking their job. I have had kids that reeked of pot. I have had kids hungover. I have also had kids seriously ill and one girl who I fear was having a miscarriage. In all these cases I can refer them to the nurse and hope the parent gets a clue. Too many times they don't because they don't want to. And they don't want to because it interferes with the dramarama going on in their own lives. Is it any wonder the kids consider school a low tier interest?

Let's talk about school boards locally and at the state level. School boards are comprised of politicians. No matter how low level or innocuous they seem, they all have their hands in the same political pie. That means that even when actions are seriously destructive to the learning environment, school boards will opt over what is popular over what is right. That is why in my district, only core classes count towards GPA. That means even AP students from the Gifted programs can dog it on a class making just enough to get credit. This instructs them how to slack off. And why is this so? Because one time a kid who happened to be in band got valedictorian over some kid who was in golf. Seriously, that's the reason. Never mind that both kids were AP students and both took plenty of rigorous courses, but because one mom with an axe to grind dragged it out to her buddy on the school board, this policy remains to the detriment of electives teachers throughout the district. This is just MY district. Other districts have loopy policies as well because the schools are run by politicians. And politicians like holding onto power. Some of the most contentious races I have seen were over school board seats. So locally and statewide schools end up with the type of boneheaded results over textbooks, staffing and more that create technology filled ghettos of ignorance wherein kids use expensive computers to plagiarize from Wikipedia or Google. This is why programs exist to suss out such actions, but the kids and their parents, who really care about the grades over the content seem to think this is just fine. This is what passes for education these days.

And finally, let's look at federal mandates. Federal mandates happened because it was seen as a way to impose specific social attitudes on children. Now who is going to say no to a kid? But what has happened is that programs are now driving the costs of education through the roof. Free lunches on the surface looked like a good thing. But I have seen the amount of waste. And it's curious how kids who don't have money for lunch have money to buy energy drinks and candy on the way to school. After school daycare sounded good, until it became a situation where the truly needy were kicked out if they didn't fulfill some mandated demographic. Then there are the special programs. Special education via the Americans with Disabilities Act has taken schools to the brink of extinction. What used to be services for kids who had hearing, reading or vision problems is now almost a medical facility with teachers. In one part of my building there are five students who have two teachers, two aides, a kitchen, a living room area, a training therapy area and a car for transportation to other services during the day. In another part of my building there are over 40 students in a math class. On paper federal officials will say this is fine and that nobody suffers. But you have to pity the kid who will someday work in the real world who never got the advantages of attention, time or one to one instruction due to the limitations of sheer numbers. Then there is ESL. ESL has become a catch all for our growing undocumented population. They are transient. They are frequently truant. They are a drag on the test scores and their parents, even when contacted in their language, do not seem overly concerned about their childrens' lack of success. In the lower grades free school is treated like daycare. In the upper grades it becomes a source of gang building which accounts for regular attendance zone changes at this level. What is sad is that many of these students have been in ESL programs since Pre K and even twelve years later do not read, nor write, nor speak, English. Yet according to federal guidelines we must provide them with millions of dollars worth of small classes, extra help, special teachers.

At a time when most states are pushing for cuts in education, there are some clear candidates for trimming. Sadly, they won't cut administration or oversight programs. They won't remove cheerleading or athletics from the list of classes making them extracurricular. Instead they will keep racheting up the class numbers driving experienced teachers into retirement. After all, younger teachers are cheaper. I am sure that's the way to improve education.

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