Isn’t It Obvious?
I recently finished reading Diane Ravitch’s book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System. I am pleased and grateful that she shares so many of the opinions I have long held about how we’re going down the wrong path in “reforming” our educational system. Moreover, she provides research to support her views and, of course, she has years of experience working as a policy-maker, things that make her voice carry a bit more weight than mine. To a teacher, much of what she is saying is obvious. Those of working us in the country’s urban schools have seen a great deal of truly needy families, squandered opportunities, punitive action against teachers, and woeful mismanagement. While I was reading Ravitch’s book, I realized that it is probably not obvious to people on the outside looking in. Like any insider, educators get so accustomed to the way things are that we take the truths we live with for granted.
I might liken it to working in the trenches: you can’t know what it’s really like unless you’ve been there and those of us who have been there will never have the same perspective on the world again. I mean, isn’t it obvious that schools in neighborhoods with higher levels of poverty would struggle more? Concurrently, isn’t it obvious that if we continue to provide kids in these schools with nothing but the “basics”, we are doing them (and the schools) a grave disservice? A large part of our obligation as educators is (or should be) to equalize the playing field as much as we possibly can, but we aren’t doing that if we continue to exalt test scores over actual learning.
I could write pages and pages about the inequities in our current system. It is difficult to narrow focus because the problems are largely interconnected and our nation’s policies and attempts at reform are so infuriatingly misdirected. While many of us have much to lose with the current narrow-minded policy, those who have perhaps the most to lose are the people with the least resources. I have worked almost exclusively in schools with higher levels of poverty and I usually work with English Language Learners. Unlike a typical charter school, a public school serves all–children with mild-to-severe special needs, children who don’t speak English, children who have challenging behaviors. We also get children who routinely get no academic support at home–no bedtime stories, no help with homework, maybe not even much conversation. In my role, I’ve had occasion to work with all of the above, which I consider my civic and moral obligation. The public school system is one of the best things about our democracy, because all children, at least in theory, have access to a free education.
Part of the problem with schools in lower SES neighborhoods is the children’s readiness for school when compared to their peers in middle and upper class neighborhoods. For example, I have seen a steady stream of small children who do not have well-developed vocabularies when they first start school. There are students who can not adequately describe the objects in their environment, they do not have the words in English, nor do they know them in the home language when it’s other than English. They have not learned to question, nor to explore their world. They need opportunities, experiences, and in-depth conversations, things that most kids in middle class homes have as a matter of course. I’m not issuing a complaint or excuse here, it’s just an observation. Yet, frequently, scheduling and mandates imposed by districts and administrators conflict with our ability to provide for these needs. While many creative and skilled teachers will understand the importance of (sometimes defiantly) carving out the time for essentials such as rich language development and inquiry, there are plenty who do not. Take these same children, several years later, after they have been fed a steady diet of rote skills and watered-down content with the intent that they do well on the state test. It’s highly likely that they have not gotten adequate support in learning English and there still may be gaps in their academic vocabularies. They frequently won’t do well on the standardized tests because they haven’t gotten the extensive background knowledge that will enable them to do so. It’s hard to do well on a test if you haven’t spent time developing thinking and reasoning skills.
As a result of unresolved challenges such as this one, we get stuck in a downward spiral. In response to low test scores, districts (and states, feds, pundits, and self-proclaimed experts) punish schools. They increasingly place those schools in at-risk neighborhoods on chopping blocks or “watch lists”, as charter schools swoop in and skim off many of the (measurably) skilled students. Families who have adequate resources tend to remove their kids from schools with low test scores. Leaders allocate even more time (and money) on test preparation and basic skills, while cutting funding and time allotted for truly enriching programs, such as arts, sciences, social studies (or quality professional development to support teachers, for that matter.) Politicians and school districts impose measures that favor punishing teachers over examining the wisdom of our policies. Passionate teachers get frustrated with the process of trying to balance serving real students’ needs with the drive to raise test scores. Many of them get burnt out and leave for less challenging school environments or for other lines of work. Left behind are the families who don’t have anywhere else to go, and those who couldn’t get there even if they did. Teachers regularly have conversations like these, and if we get on our soapboxes we know we are preaching to the choir.
I mean, isn’t it obvious?