Our Public Schools Are Not Failing Us: We are Failing Them

Today I figured out how long I worked in Information Technology before I retired out of a combination of frustration and burn out, over 30 years.  I took 6 month off before starting my second career, public education.  For the past 7-plus years I have worked in the Somerville (MA) Public School System at the k – 8 level.  As it turns out, and even though I am just a substitute teacher, it has become the most rewarding part of my work life.  Somerville is a working class city right outside Boston.  It also has a very large immigrant population primarily of immigrant from Central America but also Brazilians, Haitians, Africans, Indians, Nepalese and others.  By law, the city is required to educate all comers regardless of their background which for a city with as many low income inhabitants as it has, can be a very challenging task.

I work entirely at one elementary school in Somerville and have come to know the entire staff quite well.  In the process I have learn how to be an asset to both staff and students alike.  I have learned how to be a teacher at this level and this has made the experience extremely rewarding as-well-as allowing me to feel the experience as being tremendously rewarding, more so than at any time in my previous career.

I have had the opportunity to watch the regular teachers in action.  My take on them is that they are all not just well educated, but extremely professional, devoted, and effective in the jobs.  From experience I can say with absolute certainty that those who criticize the job these teachers do have never tried to do it themselves and have no appreciation of what it takes on a daily basis to be a good and effective teacher.  What does that mean?

Ideally, no teacher in any system should ever have to teach more than 16 – 18 students on a regular basis.  The logic for this is very simple but I suspect that few critics take the time to consider it.  That is, if you consider that a teacher may be able to devote one hour per day to each of the various subjects a student must learn.  Simple math tells us that means a teacher can only give fewer than 4 minutes per hour to an single student needing help, and they all need help to one degree or another.  The next consideration is the actual grade-level of each student in any particular subject.  That means, in any subject each student is below, at, or above the grade level they are enrolled in.  For example, each 2nd grader reads below, at, or above the second grade level.  While the distribution of such students should be relatively uniform, it is not a given.  And, it is more likely that more students will be below grade level than above.  That means each teacher must give more time and resources to such student to assist them in being successful.  But that leads to the ultimate problem, the individuals student’s desire to learn.

Intelligence aside, I do not believe there is any other single factor that is an indicator of a student’s likely level of success.  But the fact is, if a student is not willing to work to learn what they need to, no teacher, regardless of how talented they are, will change that.  Key to that desire to learn are the child’s parents.  The parents level of education and income are irrelevant if they are not fully involved in the child’s education.  And this is exactly where we are failing our children.  There is one other way and I will get to that shortly.

Every parent has an absolute responsibility to their children to be involved in their education.  That means they keep up with where their children are in school, that they are doing the in class work, their homework, and are behaving appropriately.  When any one of those things happens it is their responsibility to find out why.  This means they must consult with the teachers and counselors involved.  Teachers must teach, children must learn and parent must be responsible.  Sadly, it is my belief, that far too many parents feel absolutely no responsibility in their child’s education aside from seeing that they attend school.  But I have been witness to above intelligent students who are failing most, if not all, of their classes.  While some may argue that their may be a sub-standard teacher in a system, when the student fails regardless of which teacher he finds himself in front of, the argument fails all reasonableness.  But what is even more problematic with such students, is most of them are also discipline problems.  The tend to be disruptive influences in whatever class they attend.  This necessarily takes time away for a teacher’s ability to teach those who want to learn, in order to correct the bad behavior of those who do not want to learn.

Most people will say in response to knowledge of a failing students is that the school should not promote that child.  This happens in reality exactly once, if at all.  The reason is does not happen more often, if at all, is there exists political pressure to show that any particular school is not “failing.”  Unfortunately, the parameter exacted of what is failing, at least in Massachusetts, is two-fold.  First, how many students are held back, and second, their MCAS scores.  The MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) is a test students at various grade levels take once a year to determine their level of education.  School districts are judged by the percentage of students passing any of the tests given.  Of course, money is at stake.  Teachers necessarily tailor many hours of classroom time to assuring their students will do well on the MCAS.

One thing that is not allowable at the local, state, or federal level, is accepting the fact that in any population of individuals, a certain percentage is going to fail and there is little, if anything you can do about that.  What teachers and school administrators absolutely need is the ability to retain any student at any grade level until he shows he can perform at that grade level.  While this might mean schools systems have a group of 16-year-old 7th graders, it will also offer a fair amount of peer pressure to dissuade students from failing.  As things stand now, functional illiterates are passed along and enter high school unable to read and understand the their text books.  You can be certain that at the end of each school year, at least at the elementary level, every teacher has at least one, if not more, student who absolutely needs to be retained at that grade.  But they are not because directives coming from the schools system’s superintendent will not allow such actions.  The superintendent is pressured by the mayor, who is pressured by the state’s education czar, who is pressured by the governor who is pressured by the federal government, Washington DC politicians.

Anyone with a lick of common sense, and certainly all successful businessmen, know that before you can fix a problem who first have to properly identify what that problem is.  In this case, the fear of being perceived as a failing school system drives those in charge to promote the least well-educated while declaring them a success.

First we need to hold back any student at any grade he fails.  In calculating what defines a successful system is that system’s ability to show that on an annual basis maybe 2% of their student population is retained at grade level each year.  This would signal that the system takes seriously the actual level of education any particular student achieves rather that creating a perception that belies reality.

The ability to get parent’s to act more responsible towards their children is far more problematic.  Every good educator knows that children crave discipline.  And to a certain extent, so do their parents.  I believe that politicians fear public reprisals if they were to take a hard stand on education, holding children and parents responsible for learning that which is offered.  But my experience says that for every detractor of stricter methods, you will have 10 supporters.  And while the detractors may be for vocal, it is the supporters who guarantee your program’s success.

Every time we promote a student to a level he is not prepared for, we fail that student.  You hold a student back enough and sooner or later he will get the message and start working.  That will be difficult when you have that child’s parent in your office screaming that he should be promoted, but standing by certain principles will bring them around too, eventually.  But given time, even the most stubborn person will eventually realize that it is not profitable to do 60 MPH in a 30 MPH zone and not expect to get a speeding ticket.

Nearly 100% of all schools succeed 100% of the time using the parameters given them today.  But it is those parameters, composed by politicians and their public, that are failing our schools.


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