Education Reform?

For the past five years I have worked in the Somerville, MA public school system as a substitute teacher.  Over the past year I have enjoyed two stints as a long-term sub, that is, substituting for the same teacher for a month or more at one time.  That experience, and others, has given me a view of how we educate our children.  It has given me a bit of a different outlook.

It presently vogue to call for education reform, but what does that mean?  Education by definition goes through constant reform.  As new ideas of how to educate children come to light schools systems employ them.  That seems to be a constant market force.

My experience, however, has brought to light something I consider much more pressing, parental responsibility.  Children necessarily look to their parents for guidance and to set an example for them.  Those children in school who struggle invariably seem to come from homes where parents shirk their parental responsibility and fail to set a good example for their children.  This plays out in two ways in the classroom.  The first, and most obvious, is the child’s behavior.  Children who misbehave have a home life many times that can best be described as chaotic.  The parents think these children can fend for themselves because both parents find it necessary to be in the workplace when their children are at home.  These are the latchkey children.

You have to understand that I deal entirely with children in grades 1 through 8.  Parents who cannot be home will have their children attend an after school program.  That is a good thing but these programs can go for as little as one hour, and on some days, not at all.  The child goes home to an empty apartment, and these are children as young as 8.  An otherwise well-behaved child is then subject to the mercy of other children who are not quite so well-behaved and pick up on their bad habits.  Where these children don’t have those bad habits challenged, they grow them and then bring them to school.  The child misbehaves in school and eventually the parents are called in.  Frequently the parent becomes defensive and unwilling to see their part in the dilemma, they shift their child’s behavior problem to the school.  Schools simply are not in the business of teaching children discipline, although to be certain, discipline can be learned there.  In even a small school, if on 10% of the children misbehave on a regular basis, that can overwhelm a system that is chronically short on money.

The second problem is that of parental academic responsibility.  That quite simply means that parents must oversee their children’s school work in every aspect and not just what the child brings home.  One of the most serious problems I have seen is where the parent does not speak English and therefore cannot help the child with anything that requires a command of that language.  The resolution to this problem is difficult as it requires resources most schools systems probably don’t have, specifically, the ability to assign a tutor to the child in academic need.  But more and more, municipalities are required to test all children without regard to their ability in English.  That means that a bright child can easily fail because he cannot grasp anything more than the easiest concepts in a particular subject.  A child’s ability to conceptualize is tantamount to his education.  Without it, failure is almost assured.

Schools are saddled by appearances.  That is, schools are labeled as failing if certain goals are not meant regardless of how unrealistic such a goal may be given the circumstances of the school.  There is pressure within the school system today to move all children along even when they are failing.  The best years to hold a child back is in the first and second grades.  Sometimes just allowing a child to mature a little more is enough.  But other times the child’s inability to comprehend a subject at his grade level comes into question.   If too many children are held back at one grade level, the fear is that the school will be seen as failing when it is really just being responsible.  I am a perfect example of that.  I repeated my junior year in high school.  Now I can lay claim to being a Harvard alumni.  We do our children no favors but pushing them along when the absolutely need to be held back.

This is another place where parents have to take responsibility.  Parents can live in reality which states that failure is inevitable or in a fantasy land that says our children are perfect.  A child’s failure should give the parent a place to focus his energy in helping the child, and not an opening to blame the school system for not properly educating his child, because the latter is seldom the case.

Finally, the school I work in exists in a working class community.  Its location within that community is physically in an area that is in the lowest income portion of the city.  The teachers who work there, however, are for the most part really good educators who are truly committed to their job.  They are not lacking in the ability or desire to perform at a high level.  They are, however, limited by the resources allotted them to help the children succeed at the highest level possible.  If there is reform to be had in education, it is in the way we perceive the learning process and our response to the systemic problems the current exist.


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