A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

How serious are we about improving public schools?

I was reading the latest put forward by the respective presidential campaigns about what they would do to improve public schools.

Barack Obama want to increase federal money for charter schools, while McCain supports charter schools but also trumpets No Child Left Behind.

I have some humble ideas about how to improve public schools.

To be blunt, I worry about the educational quality provided to the six kids sitting adjacent to one child (who is expected to do about 1/10 of the work load) who has a melt down and moans and wails and disturbs the other students and the teacher in a crowded classroom of 27. This child expects to receive an A in this class, and her IEP basically mandates it. The other kids in the room, the kids who strain to hear the teacher, aren't so lucky. Frankly, they will be the ones going out and contributing the taxes that will support the sheltered workshop that the child with an "A" will land in for his working career, and they will do it after enduring a school career filled with similar experiments in socialization. To be completely blunt, the parents of the kids who have figured out this serious disconnect in education will push their average children into honors classes merely as a way to be in a classroom without such distractions, thereby inflating the number of honors classes and decreasing the standards and expectations that can be maintained at that level. In such a system, in the end, standards don't exist for anybody. Socialization is a wonderful thing. But is that the purpose of a school?

I worry about the educational quality provided to students who have to deal with the tall kid with impulse-control issues who hurls himself at other students in the hallways before and after classes. Some of them choose not to stay after school because that means that they will have to endure the unpredicatable behavior of this student, who has apparently cowed the assistant principal who is reluctant to give him appropriate consequences and allows him to return again and again to the hallowed halls of academe. Keeping kids in school is a wonderful thing. But if the only reasons this kid is in school is to laugh with his friends and intimidate other kids (and apparently, some adults) and do his parent and his neighborhood a favor by keeping him off the street, are those the real purposes of school?

There once was an assistant principal I knew who defended a field trip to a ski area with the statement: "The purpose of school is to supply children with new experiences that they would not otherwise have." I agree: and let's start with the experience of making school time about learning, about having the opportunity to become familiar with ideas about chemistry and history and coherent expression and algebra, not about sussing the slopes or eating Mexican food as a pretext for trying out our Spanish on school time. "Quisiera un burrito con arroz, por favor," is not really as vital a communication as learning how to read Gabriel Garcia Marquez, after all. Is learning how to amuse a waiter at El Campesino Mexican Cantina an adequate use of school resources?

And so it goes. Every time we confuse the message of a school as a place where hard work goes in to crafting an education, we seem to simultaneously bemoan the lack of success of public schools. But when school has become a place to get two meals a day, to hang out instead of being on the streets, to see your social worker, to access counseling, to play football-- in short, a place to do ANYTHING and EVERYTHING but actually be expected to attempt to learn, you can talk about standards and accountability until the sun rises in the west, and all you will do is make it impossible for schools to actually educate the students who actually are interested in attempting to learn and you will drive out the dedicated teachers who foolishly believed that their first priority in the classroom would be to inspire students and encourage the attainment of knowledge.

When the concept of "education is a right" has effectively evolved into a belief in the right of those who have no intention or possibly capability to actually apply themselves to learning to change the tenor and mission of the school, then we are willfully blind if we do not see the disconnect here. Rather than enforcing some basic accountability of students to come to school for the purpose of learning, our politicians talk about how public schools are failing without realizing that their unfunded mandates and misunderstanding of the basic purpose of schools stand at the root of the problem. And if we claim that a subgroup has an achievement gap in education because the whole idea of school "just doesn't make sense to us," as I listened to one overpriced consultant explain to an auditorium full of educators, then is the answer to make school comprehensible by making school not about learning but about socializing?

Could there be a time when the world does not owe people a place to hang out? Could there be paradigm shift that the root of education is learning how to change yourself rather than expecting the world to change to accommodate you?

If you want to make schools more successful at educating, let us make education our priority.

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At 9/16/08, 11:15 PM, Blogger Polski3 said...

And, when school administrators say, "We are here to SUPPORT you," they should mean it.

And, the edubureaucrats who decide what gets taught in public schools should meet, talk, discuss, etc., with each other, to coordinate things like the English/L.A. teachers have for reading selections ( at LEAST some of them ??? ) fit in with what they want that grade levels Social Studies teachers to be teaching.....

Nah. Never happen. Too many petty personalities too busy validating their job existance.

At 9/17/08, 3:59 PM, Anonymous Edgar said...

Hello. My name is Edgar and I'm an editor at OpposingViews.com, the debate website. Since we both cover education issues, and since you're obviously passionate about them, I thought I'd drop you a note. I would've e-mailed you but I couldn't find an address.
See, we're currently having a discussion about whether or not homeschooled kids are at a disadvantage. You can see it here:
Although vetted experts are the ones doing the debating, anyone can contribute by choosing a side and posting comments about the experts' arguments.
Check it out and, if you have the time, send me your thoughts via e-mail at eacosta@opposingviews.com

At 9/17/08, 4:30 PM, Blogger Ahermitt said...

My intention was to leave a comment regarding this blog, agreeing with you completely as I ended up pulling my kids out of school. One child was not learning anything, and the other child, they wanted to educate... We now homeschool. Of course the preceding comment caught my eye. Homeschoolers at a disadvantage? As compared to what?

While I believe that there is a concerted effort to improve public education, I don't think it will happen in time for my kids to graduate.


At 9/17/08, 9:11 PM, Blogger McSwain said...

THANK YOU! I have only been teaching for a few years, but one of my soapboxes is that the single biggest problem with public education is the nightmare that is mainstreaming and social promotion. Not only is it unfair for the children who are on level and actually trying to learn, it does a grave disservice to the child with the IEP who CAN'T learn during his or her time in my classroom because the material is over his or her head. And sorry, often that material can't be "made accessible" no matter how many accomodations are made.

At 9/17/08, 9:30 PM, Blogger Lightly Seasoned said...

Ah, you should read my post about my bipolar asperger's drug addict expelled from multiple districts escape artist.

I want you to know that I am differentiating his instruction, however.

At 9/22/08, 2:37 PM, Blogger OKP said...

Thank you for this post. It resonated with me. I'm passing it on.

Have you sent this to either of the cndidates?

At 9/25/08, 4:46 PM, Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Ms. Cornelius, I feel badly that I didn't see this outstanding post until now. You have a great blog, but as I think you know, during the school year it's hard just keeping up with your workload and your own blog, much less anyone else's. Thank you for this. As I said before, I think it's outstanding.

At 9/26/08, 9:24 AM, Blogger Julie Carney said...

Thank you for this post. I think it's great that you're asking what many are thinking: "Could there be a time when the world does not owe people a place to hang out?" I think the bigger issue is that technology and education are converging and changing the landscape most of us are used to, and adaptation hasn't caught up to our expectations.

By the way, I recently helped the NFIB Young Entrepreneur Foundation launch their blog. Yours has given me some great ideas. If you have time, stop by and let me know what you think.



At 9/27/08, 8:22 AM, Blogger loonyhiker said...

The problem with NCLB is that it expects all children to be "fed with the same spoon" but IDEA says "individualize." So no matter what you do, you will be breaking one law or the other. I disagree with you about mainstreaming though. If the setting is the least restrictive environment for the special ed student and the student is being successful (using accommodations that level the playing field), then it is the appropriate placement. If a teacher uses a universal design for learning, all students can be successful whether they have a disability or not. Unfortunately thanks to NCLB, unless the students are severely handicapped most of them are being dumped in general ed classrooms as a way to get everyone performing on the same grade level (impossible!). Teachers aren't given enough training in UDL and other strategies to meet the needs of all of our students because top heavy districts use monies on things other than teacher training.

At 10/4/08, 12:06 PM, Blogger Nic said...

This post in genius, and all politicos should be required to read it.

My school was recently in the paper for large-scale racial fighting, some of which was instigated by kids with probable gang-affiliations. The principal, in the article, quashed any hopes the parents had of the main culprits being expelled, stating that we had a "better chance of intervening" if those kids "remain under our purview" as opposed to being unleashed into the community. Yay. Somehow I doubt THOSE kids will be particularly interested in reading Garcia Marquez in my class.

At 3/2/09, 5:56 AM, Blogger sexy said...

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