Fixing our schools will take hard work — not mass firings

There have been several school-related stories in the news recently which seem at first glance to be unrelated. But to me, I see a thread running through them, indicating that the American public education is more of a mess now than it ever was. You’ve probably read about the Rhode Island school district that fired the entire teaching staff at Central Falls High School after the teachers’ union could not come to an agreement  with the district over it’s insistence on increased work hours for very little compensation. The school has low standardized test scores and an abysmal graduation rate.

Clearly something needed to be done. Firing everyone at the school was not it. Maybe you didn’t know this, but people aren’t exactly clamoring for teaching jobs. Why not ? Well, possibly because when it comes time to look for a job, everyone knows that teaching means long hours of planning and grading — hours that go way beyond the regular work day, for  relatively low pay, under sometimes exhausting and stressful conditions. (Yes, for that I went to graduate school.)

Certainly there are some bad teachers at this high school, just as there are at every school, just as there are some lousy workers at your job, too. It’s the human condition. But sometimes it’s hard to measure a good teacher — after all, we’re not talking about making widgets here. We’re talking about improving human beings who happen to be young, emotional, hormonal, and complicated. Productivity is unpredictable.

Those Central Falls High students don’t show up at this institution able to succeed and then suddenly lose it all because of poor teachers. This school is in one of the poorest areas of Rhode Island and surely come to school each day with a host of baggage that most of us cannot even begin to imagine. The fact that they continue to come to school rather than drop out says something about the dedication and quality of teachers at this school.  The teachers work with what they get — when a student shows up to high school reading on a first grade level, how realistic is it to expect him or her to achieve “proficiency” in 4 years when they are but one of a class of 30?

I was a middle school Special Education teacher for 4 years, and had started teaching just before “No Child Left Behind” was instituted. A year in, I knew this legislation was a horrible mistake, developed by politicians on both sides of the aisle who had obviously never spent a day in front of a classroom, much less a year tracking students’ progress. This morning I heard an NPR interview with one of the architects of NCLB, Dine Ravitch, who now says:

I was known as a conservative advocate of many of these policies. But I’ve looked at the evidence and I’ve concluded they’re wrong. They’ve put us on the wrong track. I feel passionately about the improvement of public education and I don’t think any of this is going to improve public education.

Well thanks a lot.

I tried to stick it out with NLCB in my school, and even switched from Special Education to Computer Technology for a couple of years.  But in the end, I felt that the new testing requirements did so much to squeeze the life out of good teaching, I decided to move on. It wasn’t just how testing might affect my instruction, but what I saw it doing to the students. My school was always borderline “proficient” on the testing results, again because many students came from struggling backgrounds. One of the things my school administrators decided to do was to take all students who scored below proficient in math or reading out of a special area subject — either computer tech, home ec, or family studies — and put them into an additional period of either math or reading.

This did not result in higher test scores.

In Baltimore County, Maryland, where I taught, there has recently been controversy over the “Articulated Instruction Module” grading system that was being required of all teachers, despite being shown to be redundant and extraordinarily time-consuming. The kicker: the school system gave the copyright to the software program used in AIM to one of its high level employees. As in, she developed it on the job, and then copyrighted it so that she could sell it to other school districts.

You see, what NCLB has done is turn our public education system into a big moneymaker for a handful of people. We have federal mandates that all children must meet specific targets. Yet there is nothing in place to ensure that the students at Central Falls High School have the same opportunities, the same support, the same education from day one, as a student in, for example, Fairfax County, Virginia, home to the country’s top-ranked high school, or any of the other schools on this US News & World Report list.

Until we address health care, poverty, substance abuse, adult functional illiteracy, and violence in this country, these attempts to mandate education reform from on  high will only continue in more teachers being scapegoated and more business people making money off of the entire mess of our public school system.

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