Last weekend I attended the Norman Amaker Public Interest Law Retreat outside Indianapolis. I met lots of great students, teachers, lawyers, and other folks who try to make the world better, and have a renewed and reinforced interest in joining them.
One of the session topics was "Discrimination in Education," and a lot of difficult issues were raised in that session. The first was ESL students. One of the panelists pointed out (I think fairly) that schools often misdiagnose learning or behavior problems and fail to deal appropriately with them. For example, we expect a transient 4th-grader to learn English, but to ask a teacher to learn Spanish is "unrealistic," so the ESL teacher (who often doesn't know Spanish either!) becomes the "expert" any time there is ANY problem with the kid.
Another problem frequently identified is the obvious disparity between "rich schools" and "poor schools" (often labeled "Title I schools"). In New York, one district spends approx. $11,000 per pupil, while another (right across town) spends $3,000 per pupil. Clearly, one of those groups is at a disadvantage. One of the panelists was a former AmeriCorps teacher at a Title I school in NYC who said for the first two weeks she was short about 8 desks and had to have some of her 5th-graders sit on the rug (that she purchased). Her school of over 1,000 elementary students had ONE special needs teacher and TEN (!) child schizophrenics. 100% of the students were on free lunch. Um. Anyone see something wrong with this picture? Not meeting testing standards is the LEAST of this school's problems.
Third issue touched, relating to the second: vouchers. Almost everyone there was OVERWHELMINGLY against them. Their point: if you give people $2,000 to go to any school they want, (1) there may not be a better school available, and (2) if there is, they can guarantee it will cost more than $2,000. Hence, only the parents with means (who care to apply their money there) will be able to get their kids out of the "failing" schools, they will take their tax money with them, and leave all "the rest of them" to sink further. Something about that really bothers me. Call me a silly idealist, but I don't like the thought of there being a "the rest of them" in America.
Issue not touched but probably should have been: We threw the words "success" and "failing" around a lot, but never really defined them. What is a "failing" school? When can a student be said to have "succeeded"? Does it have to do with test scores? College admission? Happy and well-adjusted graduates (I challenge you to put a number on THAT)? My high school in Florida was great--if you were one of the privileged. We were an 'A' school--high rate of test passage, lots of AP students, college admission. But what about the "other" students at my school. Did they just get written off as that other 10% that, no matter what you do, just isn't ever going to look good on paper? I was given everything I could want at that school because I made it money. I passed AP tests, standardized tests, went to college. What about the students who didn't?