Saturday, April 28, 2007

State of the Schools

First published February, 2005

I’m a teacher. In the eight weeks since Christmas break, I will have spent three weeks testing students. None of it will show up on their report cards because it’s just to comply with state and federal mandates. Consequently, I’ll have less time to teach curriculum the school board hired me to deliver. Students will get less US History.

Teachers have been cutting back like this for decades - three at least, since I’ve been involved. It’s a kind of paradox. Schools have been adding more and more subjects as well as more services, the staff to deliver them, the administrators to supervise them, the clerical people to keep track of them, and the custodians to clean up afterward and to keep it all working. What hasn’t been added however, is any extra time to do it all. Hence, there must be cutbacks in the primary mission.

Public schools started with a simple mandate: teach children to read, write, do arithmetic, and teach them enough of history to help them become good citizens. Generally, schools met for six-and-a-half or seven hours a day for thirty-six to forty weeks. It started in September and ended in June. As families got busier with mothers working outside the home and there was an increasing percentage of single-parent families, schools were expected to assume more of the functions which families had hitherto been sole provider of. Most schools feed students breakfast now as well as lunch. More students receive psychological or sexual counseling in school instead of being referred out for it. Families expect schools to pick up the slack as they have less time, and schools pretend they can accomplish it. Expectations of schools increase but time remains static. It’s still six-and-a-half hours a day for thirty-six weeks. No matter how hard we may try, we can’t do it all. Nobody could, but we are reluctant to admit it. So, we pretend.

Along with increased expectations came new policies, many of questionable effectiveness. Students who don’t progress are promoted anyway. Very few repeat grades anymore in elementary or middle schools. Instead, they’re pushed along, and the result is an increasing cohort of students not prepared to work at grade level. That wouldn’t have been as bad if “progressive” educators hadn’t insisted that this cohort be taught alongside students who progressed as they were supposed to. We no longer group students according to achievement or ability in many elementary or middle schools. That’s “tracking” and it’s considered elitist. The very mention of it brings gasps to progressives. Instead, our brightest, hardest-working students are taught together with average kids and an ever-increasing percentage of students who do little, have learned little, and are determined to resist anyone’s efforts to get them to change. What students in this last group have learned, however, is that they can do nothing and still be passed along to the next grade.

Simultaneous with the no-retention policy came the “total inclusionary model.” Special education students with various handicaps were brought into regular classrooms instead of being taught separately. Some were successful with the addition of support staff, but others were not. They appeared to do well, however, because support staff often did more than support. Work, tests and quizzes were watered down and grades were inflated. The upshot for such students was an unofficial disability called “learned helplessness.” More classifications emerged for students with disabilities and more staff was added to service them. Teachers were expected to teach the brightest, the average, the willfully ignorant, and the disabled, all together in one egalitarian, progressive, non-elitist classroom. The extra time allotted for all this? None. It was impossible, of course, but everyone pretended they could do it.

The result? Students were getting high school diplomas who were unable to fill out job applications. Local business people, who pay a lot of property taxes to support schools, wondered how this could be. They pressured governments to make sure students could read, write, and do simple math before getting a diploma. The federal government could have come up with minimum-competency standards for all states and the tests to make sure they were met. There’s little other justification for an education bureaucracy at the federal level, but that would have been too simple. It would have provided a set of expectations essential to students across the nation in an age when families move around more than ever and students are constantly changing schools. States would not be told how to teach these fundamental skills, as long as students learned them. States would be free to teach more than the basic, but could not get away with substituting trendy, flash-in-the-pan programs for fundamentals. That would have made a lot of sense. Therefore, it didn’t happen. Instead, we have multiple batteries of tests of questionable efficacy to administer, and less time to teach.

New England Yankees used to have an expression: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Government looked at schools and figured, “If they ain’t broke, we’ll keep on fixing them until they are broke.”

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