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Friday, April 5, 2013

Does public education earn an F?

It's not much of a secret that American public schools are in the proverbial toilet. That's not to say that all districts are bad or fail their kids, but let's not kid ourselves: it seems that somewhere in the equation, we have screwed up. Badly.

My apologies to those who like this guy (I've never heard of him - does that make me uneducated?), but after seeing this meme on FaceBook I just kind of shook my head.

Hmm...did he really say this? Something didn't sound quite right here. His disclaimer: "Even though I don't personally have a kid in school" made me wonder if he was even old enough to have kids. Apparently he does, but I don't know if they're old enough to be in school yet. Even if they are, do you think with his wealth and fame he's going to put them in public school? And even if he is, again - with that wealth and fame he can pretty much move right in to one of the best, wealthiest districts in his area, I'm sure.

Because I didn't know who this person was, I looked him up. He was educated in a boarding/country day school and then moved on to the rural but prestigious Kenyon College, a private liberal arts college in Ohio (that is not that far from where I spent my formative years). I have lived as a faculty spouse in the boarding school culture for over a decade, and am quite familiar with its demographics: mostly made up of either parents who are scraping everything together to help their kids where the public school failed them, or parents who could literally write a check for the $50,000 tuition without batting an eyelash.

Either way, because we're a school that specializes in teaching kids with learning "differences," they're here because their former public school failed them. They're here because their public school either could not, or would not, give them what they needed to succeed.

As a product of the public school system myself, I caught on quickly to their schemes: tracking and grouping "smarter" students and sending them to the brighter, more engaged and dynamic teachers, while the rest of us were going in the other direction. I quickly noticed how the TAG (talented and gifted) program primarily consisted of the smartest kids in my class. I was there when, as we stood in the hallway looking at the class roster for the coming year, a fellow student who's mother was a substitute teacher was horrified to learn that she'd been placed in the teacher's room that ended up making my life a living hell for much of fourth grade. (It wasn't long before her mother protested and changed her to the other teacher's class, and I wondered to myself, What's wrong with this teacher? What does her mother know that mine doesn't? Why doesn't my mom move me, too? 

As it turned out, that fourth grade teacher would chastise me for my problems in math, calling me to the board to be embarrassed in front of the entire class time and time again. Meanwhile, in my head I was silently criticizing her for her professed inability to say the word 'aluminum.' Years later my mom told me told that classmates of mine asked her, "Why is the teacher so mean to Carrie?" Therein began my absolute hatred for math.

Fast forward a couple grades - after we stopped being separated by "smart kids, dumb kids" - and I was distinctly told by at least one of my teachers, "Oh, I've heard about your struggles in math." I thought to myself, Yes, and what are you going to do about it? I was again horrified and embarrassed. My high school algebra teacher separated me from the class, making the rest wait in silence as he went over negative numbers and integers with me. At one point during that year, I left the room in tears.

It was only when my chemistry teacher took the time to teach me a different way, to help me outside of class and away from the stares of my peers, that I really got it - and actually started to enjoy math. Somehow I can function just fine in my world, despite not having taken higher-level math - a reality that became crystal clear to me as I took one standardized test after another to assess what I knew and what I should know. The math questions always stumped me and I basically just started guessing. It occurred to me: This is an assessment of what the state thinks I should know. But what if I don't? How can I answer questions on a test when I've never even seen this material before?

I think of the learning-disabled kids who went to my school - stuck in the resource room, which translated into "party time!" They were kids with behavioral problems and bad grades, and it's hard to tell which came first. It's obvious when reading their status updates on FaceBook that they still clearly struggle with reading and writing skills, and I feel badly for them. They were just shuffled around, probably never made to think they could succeed. What if they had untapped potential and could've been helped in a different way? Even though this was during the 80s and 90s, don't think it still doesn't happen in schools today, despite all the legislation, funding and government intervention that tries to tell us differently.

I took "advanced placement" English in high school, which was nothing more than a year-long session of glorified spelling tests. We read one book the entire time. I got mad about it, admittedly disrespectfully arguing with the teacher in front of the entire class about how when I got to college, my English professor was going to laugh in my face. I asked the school's librarian about it, and she knew full well the problem, puzzled because that teacher's house was "full of books."

We are fortunate to have the opportunity to send our children to a private parochial school that has the cheapest tuition I've ever seen. But we're hoping to move closer to family, which makes me wonder if we're not crazy for giving up such a good deal (too bad it's only K-8). When I compared private education costs elsewhere, I was literally blown away. One school charges $6,000 a year for full-day kindergarten alone. How can we possibly afford to educate three kids there? Couple that with housing costs, and just in order to find a house reasonably within our budget, we're looking at sketchy, poorly-rated districts, if not some of the worst in the area. What do really poor, low-income people do? Just give up?

I think back to my conversation with a private school administrator currently facing low enrollment (because no one wants to shell out the big bucks for private schools) and a number of questionable students who are there on the voucher program. While it ideally should give bright students trapped in a crappy district the power to seek out better schools, in reality, she said that those A's they got in public school now translate into D's once in the private setting. That particular district was riddled with corruption scandals that included a heavy-handed principal that used his influence to hire friends who were incompetent and lied about their credentials during interviews. They tore down the completely ramshackle building and built a fancy new one, which now has empty classrooms that they cannot fill. The local police department also has an office within the building,  if that tells you anything.

Why should we be happy to shell out hard-earned tax dollars to a district that is underperforming? That has had state funds put on hold because they aren't churning out students that meet their expectations? Districts that are obsessed with raising those all-important test scores, at any cost? If all they care about is the scores, they're not caring whether or not the kids really know the information - all it does is teach you how to be a good test-taker. If you're not, then it's a poor reflection of what you really know, and how you can apply that knowledge.

I also think of the public school teachers I know who post multiple updates about how they hate their jobs, are getting out of teaching, because the students don't care, don't do any work, the administration gives them a pass and doesn't punish them, the parents are uninvolved and couldn't be bothered. It's endless. One person I actually had to unfriend because that's all she did, in every post. Is this the new "social order?"

One thing I've noticed that is rampant in the educational subculture is the use of big words, stock phrases and jargon that basically says absolutely nothing. We can speak this way all day long, to convince people we care, that we "get it," to make ourselves look puffed up and educated. When really, it's quite the contrary. Book smarts and fancy language are impressive, but can only go so far. I saw a great interview with old-school economist Thomas Sowell, who was public-schooled in Harlem, dropped out of high school and went on to become a veritable genius in his field, graduating magna cum laude from Harvard. He said that people are always coming up to him and bemoaning his experience in the inner-city public schools, but he doesn't know what they're talking about - he said he received a good education, and those in the neighborhood around him did, too. What happened? He now thinks there are none of those channels out of poverty and the very system in place to help is actually keeping these students from succeeding.

I don't like to use the phrase 'stupid people,' perhaps just "under smart." Not as smart as they could be, maybe because they're expecting and allowing the public school to fully educate their children? Trusting them to do a good job and pick up where the parent left off? What if the parent never started to begin with? I'm sure it's a combination of things - parents that don't care or can't care, students who don't care or fall between the cracks, teachers who don't have the time and mental fortitude to work on every single kid who comes from a household where education doesn't mean squat. And the more people who don't become their "child's first teacher," who don't give a rip, the more the district - and the state - decides to step in for "the social order" and the common good and start making decisions on the child's behalf. That includes in cases where the parents most definitely educate their kids and have a high stake in their learning. What gives the district and the state the right to undermine and override the parents' authority in their child's life, especially in the presence of very aware, intelligent and involved parents? If you have a district that's primarily made up of parents who don't care, are they doing more harm than good in acting on the child's behalf, just further making them victims of the system?

I think so.

More reading:
California 12-year-olds to get HPV vaccine without parental consent
Teen gets abortion with help from her high school


Trbobitch said...

Are you familiar with John Taylor Gatto?

The Deranged Housewife said...

No, I'm not - but I just googled him and he sounds really interesting. Thanks for mentioning it!

Amanda said...

I can somewhat relate to the experiences in math, only I was never assisted, just passed on from one year to the next.

Today, as an adult, I still struggle with math. It's embarrassing but not something I can easily remedy. I just continue "faking it" the best I can. Thank goodness for the calculator feature on computers and smartphones!

I honestly think that I had/have some sort of learning disability in math which caused a lot of my issue that my very cruel 4th and 5th grade teacher - yes, she "graduated" with us - compounded.

I often wonder if I might be further in life had I had a better school experience.

The Deranged Housewife said...

Amanda, I can completely relate to your comment because essentially the same thing happened to me. Just passed me along without really getting into any of it. My chemistry teacher taught me more about math than anyone else, and now I can perform basic math functions just fine although yes - that smartphone calculator is very handy! I once had a customer tell me how to make change while I worked a cash register, which was a bit embarrassing - but then I realized that perhaps although a bit slow at it, I could probably do it on my own and was just overthinking it. I think part of my problem was just outright avoidance because I would clam up otherwise and my brain would freak out and think "This is too hard." I think that is why I never learned how to read music better, because it involved numbers and counting and just got too confusing after awhile and I would play by ear instead.

Ethel said...

I will direct you to: I think we give too much homework and homework too soon to our kids, we don't value what matters - outside, unstructured time and playing. We need to focus on what kids need, social time with each other, playing, and unstructured time. Pretty simple stuff.

I am NOT my kids first teacher, that is a bunch of bull crap - they will learn by example (our culture, our language, our work) but teachers are responsible for the rest and the child is responsible for their work.

As for your teacher, well, there are always teachers that do that. A classmate with obvious FAS and really not smart was placed in TAG before it was dissolved when I was growing up because her father was the school counseler, she got a HS diploma and I have a masters in biochem, I know my IQ was the highest in my classes and perhaps school - but I don't begrudge her the time in TAGs. It probably got her through school. Being in higher placement classes does not make you smarter, it is a gold star for who you know - struggling and succeeding makes you smarter.

More play, real play, less schoolwork - pretty simple stuff.

The Deranged Housewife said...

If they learn by example - from you, perhaps - you are teaching them, are you not? Much of culture is completely bass ackwards and messed up - I sure don't want my kids emulating that.

I had no "connections" that anyone that would've secured my place in an advanced class, that's for sure - I just found her brand of "educating" to be mindless and not really educational.