Monday, April 14, 2014

Are Reformers Smarter Than a 12th-Grader?

Full disclosure: I work at a good school. My admin team is supportive of teachers. My colleagues are, by and large, total pros who work their posteriors off every day. The students come from a solidly middle-class community. There are some kids whose parents could easily afford to send them to private schools. But our fairly new, hi-tech facility with its full arts programs and artificial grass stadium and building-wide Wi-Fi located directly across the street from an upper-middle bedroom community attracts a good number of those kids. I’m know one of the more fortunate (and privileged) teachers in the country, and truth be told, that makes me feel a little guilty from time to time. I’m pretty sure that’s a big reason why I am currently making noise about the rape of public education courtesy of the privatization and corporate reform crowd.

Today, that privilege was brought into some fairly sharp relief courtesy of a current student, who reinforced a long-held belief of mine about what it means to be poor.

For the past few days, my 12th graders have been presenting their senior capstone projects. Senior Capstone is essentially a year-long inquiry project in which students conduct field work and research in a chosen discipline and deliver a formal presentation at year’s end detailing their experience and the results of their research.

Many students choose to focus on careers. Today’s presentation from Lena was a summary of her field work in a local elementary school, a Title I school in a decidedly poorer end of our district. Yes, ladies and gents, for better or for worse, Lena wants to be a teacher.

The presentation itself was adequate, though nothing to write a song about. But at the Q&A portion, an audience member asked about the biggest challenge she had to take on during her experience. She replied that the class of fifth graders she was working with had really lousy writing skills, and that she felt helpless because she didn’t know enough about writing instruction to provide any real assistance.

Now, being an English teacher, any talk of written expression from young folks gets my attention, so I engaged Lena in a little follow-up in the hopes of getting her to flesh out this observation and maybe provide the audience a bit more insight into life “on the other side of the desk”.

Me (gently querying): What was it about the writing that was so awful?
Lena: Well, it wasn’t really just the writing, it was everything. There weren’t a whole lot of good students. The school is ghetto.
Me (cautiously treading): Hmm…I dunno if I’m OK with that word. Could you try again?
Lena: No disrespect. I’m just saying these are poor kids with issues. A cop came in one day to arrest a student. A fifth-grader. Some kids didn’t have homes. It’s nothing like our school where parents are around and care and don’t normally have to get their son out of jail in the middle of the school day.
Me (blatantly posing a leading question): So are you trying to tell me that poverty impacts a kid’s capacity to succeed in school?
Lena: Of course! Everyone knows that.

I wish Lena was right, that everyone knows which way the wind blows when it comes to poverty and its relationship to the data that so many empty suits, hedge-funders, and ideologues are currently using as a yardstick to measure what they consider success (read: test scores).


But what really burns my waffles about this whole issue is that it took Lena a mere four days of volunteering in this classroom to figure this out. No college degree, little knowledge about they way kids learn. Just by coming in and working with the student and teachers, she bore witness to a truth that people who have never spent a moment in a public school classroom can’t see two feet in front of them.

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