Parents Are Failing their Child’s Education

I was able to retire at a pretty young age. Shortly thereafter I undertook substitute teaching. At one point or another I worked all grades, kindergarten through 8th grade. In those positions I got an up close and personal look into what is expected of today’s youth and how they are meeting those expectations.

Certain things have not changed since I was in the public-school system. Those students with a high degree of intelligence do well regardless of the situation into which they are thrown. That is a qualified “do well” however. The qualification is that if there is something at home which is very negative or if they have undergone a traumatic experience. Such students will need more and specialized attention. I will go into that a little bit later.

I believe that all students, regardless of capacity, have expectations thrown upon them which far exceed those of my generation and for a number of generations following. Towards the end of my educational experience in the public system I remember that “new math” was being introduced. That, of course, is a misnomer because there is no such thing. Math, regardless of what name you put upon it, in essence has not changed much in 100 years. Certain portions of advanced, college level, math have been introduced such as theoretical math. But for our public-school kids, such things do not and should not apply.

I have worked in four different school systems in the near-in Boston suburbs. One thing that was a constant across these systems was the amount of parental responsibility. This most important part of the educational system is greatly lacking if not entirely missing from the student’s education. How much a parent involves himself in their child’s educational experience greatly influences that child’s ability to succeed. Most importantly, the parent must set boundaries, discipline and structure for their child. A rebellious child is most likely looking for attention. When these things are not in the child’s home life, they end up in the lap of the schools, and in particular, the student’s teacher. These students frequent present a disruptive influence in the classroom which requires extra attention from the teacher. This, in turn, impacts the other 20 to 25, or more, students in the classroom. Then there is the student who consistently fails to do his homework. This again goes back to the parent who does not participate in their child’s education by failing to ensure that all homework in completely done.

When I was young, that information that was not given me in the schools, came to me via television, newspapers, magazines or my friends. The advent of social media on devices like computers and cell phones have given the young person an unprecedented access to the world. Some of the things these children have access to may not be healthy for them. This is a point at which society today struggles to differentiate what our children should see from what they should not. The cell phone, in particular, has become a device too often used to bully other children. And this is where parents fail most frequently. I have had many experiences in the school system where a parent is called in to talk about how his child misbehaves and is a bully. The parent, however, will not accept what is being offered and declares that his child is not a bully. One factor in their making such a decision is that they do not fully understand what a bully is.

When I was in elementary school, one of the ways we boys settled disputes was through wrestling on the playground. Fist fights were extremely rare and even then, they were forbidden. But somewhere along the way it was decided that no child should touch another child for any reason. We also played flag football which more often than not turned into tackling from behind. I do not remember any of us ever getting hurt but when we returned to the classroom a lot of our extra energy had been expended. But today’s overly protective atmosphere does not allow for this.

Today’s students are being taught concepts, particularly in math, which were usually not introduced until high school when I was in school. While I can see the benefit of an earlier introduction, it is sometimes put-upon children who are too young to understand these concepts and so they fail.

These educators, who I suspect all reside in college academics, have built a model that does not allow for the greatest chance of success at a particular grade level. Students fall behind and fail because this teaching model has failed to introduce the student to certain fundamental aspects of education. First, and foremost, students are not taught how to study. And by this I meant, at some point, possibly the third or fourth grade, a full year class in who to read effectively, how to study effectively and how to write effectively, be taught. Students are taught how to read and write, but that knowledge is never intertwined with how to study.

Finally, it is my belief that all school systems be required to have a state certified social worker at each school. The social worker would not be answerable to the school’s principal, but to the city’s mayor or town’s manager. Their being independent from the school system, and that being understood by all students, might greatly help students who are struggling with bullying, bad home life and trauma. Such a person could easily have a great effect, a positive effect, on a student’s success.

In recent years school systems have come under fire for failing their students. To some degree this is certainly true. But to a much greater degree it is the parents and state education administrators who are actually failing our students. This can all be resolved via parental involvement in a school system’s doctrine. Through Parent Teacher Organizations, parents can take control of how their child are taught and what they do in the schools. Communities must come together with educators. They must look closely at the students who are failing or those who are underachieving and find a course that will address those students’ needs.

It is not our schools that are failing us, it is we who are failing our schools.


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.

What Should We Teach High Schoolers in American History?

I received at master degree in US History from Harvard University.  That, in itself, does not make me any sort of expert on the subject.  To the contrary, it has only made me more aware of just how much there is to learn, and of how little I know.  Even so, by necessity, I was required to know a particularly high degree of knowledge about U.S. History in general.

Over 20 years ago a man named Howard Zinn wrote a treatise on the history of the United States. He offered it as a particularly honest look at American history.  Although Zinn did not say this, it seems it was intended to counter the accepted texts in existence in American schools.  And therein lies the “problem” that many see in the texts used in our public schools.  There is nothing particularly revolutionary in Zinn’s book.  But it certainly is not a text book nor could it be used very effectively as one.

I very recently saw someone put up a map of the general areas that the native Americans once occupied.  The question was asked why such things are not taught in American schools.  It is not a bad question, in itself, but there is an even more basic question that has to be asked of any published text.  That question is:  “What do we include and what do we exclude in our texts?”

Many decades ago a social anthropologist name Clifford Geertz wrote a scholarly work called “A Thick Interpretation of Cultures.”  His entire point was that history, and related works, needed to consider all facts involved with any situation before coming to any sort of conclusion.  He used the Battle of Waterloo, where Wellington defeated a superior force with a superior field general, Napoleon, and asked a simple question, how?  It was not enough to say bad luck, or a superior battle plan, or any other single thing.  He suggested that something as simple as weather conditions played an important role in Napoleon’s defeat.   The point it, to properly tell the story of this single engagement would, at the very least, require several text pages.  By extension, if every very important situation that has been experienced in the United States is to be faithfully related, we would need text books that would count in the multiple of volumes to discuss any single era, let alone our entire history.

The answer to the question of the map of Native American tribes is simply that a good historian would have to devote at least an entire book to explaining who these people were, how they came to live where they started and where they ended up, along with a lot of details about their encounters with the European settles, French, English, and Spanish.  How do we succinctly explain how the Cherokee nation, originally in Georgia, ended up in Oklahoma?  How do we explain the native cultures of the northeast and their interaction with French and English settlers, their involvement in the American Revolution, their assimilation into  American culture, and so forth?

More recently we could concern ourselves with the internment of tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans in 1942.  You would need to start by informing the reader of the fears of the average American, why they feared the Japanese any more than the millions of German-American or Italian-Americans at the same time.  And then finish it up by explaining who the Tuskegee Airmen were, and why they in particular were a breakthrough group in both race relations and military hierarchy.

People love to focus on some of the egregious mistakes the United States has made in its history.  That this mistakes were made is undeniable.  That every American probably should be aware of them at least to some degree, also true.  But when you are teaching 14, 15, and 16 year-olds basic American history, you have to give a rather high-level view of the history, an unfortunately very general view.  I would love to see a more comprehensive view of American history taught, but to do so would require at least two years and not just the single year now required.

I have read a comprehensive study done on texts used in American public schools, and reviewed many of the texts myself.  Their conclusion, as-well-as mine, is these text need heavy revisions.  But those revision do not include a much more comprehensive text, but mostly a more intelligible and well-written text.

The best thing any individual who believes our children are not taught as much history, or some particular history, should endeavour to insure that their own children are taught those portions first, then, see about getting public seminars in that particular area of history which they believe needs addressing.

Teachers can, and many do, suggest readings outside the assigned text.  They typically assign research projects for their students.  But the limit of a teacher’s ability to teach, is the student’s desire to learn.

It is too easy to complain about what you think is wrong.  But it makes a lot more sense to actively do something about it rather than complaining.

Is Your Child a Bully?

I think if you gathered 100 parents of school-age children in a room, most, if not all, would say their child is not a bully.  The fact is, I would say at least 10 of them has a child who is a bully, and maybe more.  That is not a scientific fact, but it comes from my experience over the past 4-plus years in the classroom of a primary school here in Massachusetts.

What does a bully look like?

The picture above, “Butch” from the “Little Rascals” series of the 1930s who played the bully, might be akin to what so many people think a bully looks like today.  The fact is they look a lot like this:

To be clear, I do not know who the girl and boy are in the above pictures, but in my experience they could easily be bullies in their schools.  The fact is, a bully does not have a particular look, a particular family type, a particular race or religion.  Bullies are as likely to look cute as they are mean.  And a kid who looks mean may be the furthest thing from a bully.

Bullies do not act out in any particular place.  A child can be an angel in the classroom but a bully on the playground, on the school bus, or when they are walking home.  A bully is not a dumb kid, and I believe he, or she, is more likely to be of above average intelligence, but are saddled with a severe case of insecurity, and a bad self-image.

A bully is not just he kid who beats up other kids.  A bully is more likely to wage a psychological war with his prey, constantly picking on his target by belittling him, and degrading him.

The skilled bully, very common, knows when not to act out, around his teachers and parents.  He presents the well-behaved, sincere, and caring young person.  But in reality, just beneath the surface, his is angry and looking for a target of his aggressions.  Girls are as likely to be bullies as are boys.  Size of the child is not an indicator of anything as a small child is just as likely, if not more so, to be a bully as the big child.

Schools are required by law to deal directly with bullying, even perceived bullying, immediately and in writing.  Parent must be informed immediately.  But that is exactly where the problems truly begin.  Too many parents, when informed that they child has been caught bullying another child, deny that their child could possibly engage in such conduct.  Their “angel” is simply not capable of being a bully.  The fact is, everyone is capable of being a bully.

There is a movie that comes out tomorrow, Friday March 30, called “Bully.”  I have not yet seen it but plan to.  I would hope that all young parents would go to the movie and take their kids along, regardless of age.  Bullies happen in the first grade just as they do in any other grade.  But in taking their kids to the movies, their children might open up about problems they are having with bullies at their school.  Some children may see their own bad behavior in the movie and how it plays out, and will tell their parents of their own bad acts.  It is my experience that bullies do not like doing what they do, they simply do not know how else to act, lack coping skills, or in worse cases, lack impulse control.  Sometimes the fix is as simple as making a child aware of how wrong their actions are and making consequences for them.  But other children need professional help, not a bad thing, and in rare cases, medication.

Bullying is epidemic in our schools.  But we cannot lay this problem at the feet of our teachers.  It is the parent’s responsibility to teach their children who to act properly and to discipline their children appropriately.  We each have a personal responsibility where our children are concerned.  We each have to accept that we just might be harboring a bully and that until we take action, nothing will change.