Monday, February 27, 2006

Education Woes

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?


Monica said...

So did anyone talk about part of the problem being the federal government trying to run individual schools? Or about the parents of those kids in the Title I schools that don't have a chance or a prayer of ever succeeding becuase 1) they don't have few marketable skills and 2) there aren't jobs to be had even if they did have a skill. Or maybe about that piece of junk program that our president threw at the schools. "No Child Left Behind" sounds grand and all that, but without any way of implementing, it does nothing but frustrate administrators and shove schools farther down the road of teaching kids how to pass tests instead of how to live. Grrrr.....

So maybe the question of the hour is how you define a sucessful school. It obviously can't just be test scores, but like you asked, how do you put a number on being a happy and productive graduate?

mel said...

Hmm, you bring up some interesting points. I wish I had time to do some research on per-pupil spending to see how strong the connection is between that and the school's "success" or "failure." While I'm sure money is a factor, and I'm pretty sure that it's a good idea to have enough desks, etc., for students, I'm not convinced that money is quite as important a factor as people tend to believe. I'll let you know if I ever come up with any numbers--they will probably involve South Carolina public schools, since they seem to be an example of everything that's wrong with our educational system. :)

I've always been attracted to the idea of some sort of school choice. I see how vouchers could put poorer students at a disadvantage, but I suppose I'm an idealist, too--I'd like to think that schools, businesses, community groups, etc. would start scholarship funds for students with potential but without the means to attend better schools. Perhaps criteria for awarding scholarships would not need to be based entirely on academic merit (so we won't further disadvantage the poor kids who've been stuck in failing schools)--I'm thinking extracurricular or community service type things, or maybe some sort of "work scholarship" program.

At any rate, I really think that something needs to be done to introduce more competition into our educational system. And the competition should make a good education accessible to more than just the privileged kids.

Monica, my 8th-grade history teacher always liked to harp on the fact that the federal government has no business running local schools. :) I don't know much about NCLB, but since it's a federal program I'm sure it stinks!

mel said...

One other thought... I wonder if public floggings of disruptive students would have much of an effect on the educational system? (Besides the negative publicity and the lawsuits, I mean.) ;-)

Becca said...

The only problem with that, Mel, is that the kids "without potential" are the ones that need the most help. They don't have scholarships for those.

Oh, and I'm turning a bit liberal here. I'm not too sure about corporal punishment if it can be avoided. I'm not sure humiliation accomplishes much except humiliate and create really bad memories. Numbers might contradict me; I don't think anyone really has a study.

mel said...

I think I'm using the term "potential" more to describe students who care at least a little bit about their lives more than I am to describe students who are doing well in school--i.e., they have the potential to become productive citizens, even if they're not brilliant or super-talented in some area. I don't think we ought to be giving scholarships to kids who aren't going to bother showing up for classes. There should be some sort of program for them, too--we shouldn't just write them off--but I think that those who are trying (even if they aren't succeeding) should be the first to get help. Of course, we have to define "trying." And come up with a way to help kids see why they need to try. I suspect that student apathy is a big reason for schools' failures... but how to get people to care about something? (Like leading a horse to water...)

Well, enough rambling... Maybe next time I'll actually do some research so I know what I'm talking about! :)

Oh--don't worry, I'm not really that into the idea of public floggings! I probably wouldn't use corporal punishment except as a last resort, but it makes sense to me that it's sometimes the most effective way to get a kid's attention quickly. (Especially for little kids!)

Monica said...

Yeah, I think I'm falling more and more into the "no corporal punishment" camp. I'm just not sure that it accomplishes anything positive, and it definitely leaves scars. Seems like there ought to be a way to encourage good behavior without having to resort to hitting, and there are certainly better ways to get a kid's attention.

Becca said...

Even if there are special programs for "kids who don't care to do anything with their lives" I don't think it should involve separating them from "kids who do want to do something with their lives." If anything, maybe the former would benefit from being held to the higher standard of the latter. That was probably the most notable thing in my high school--the two groups were separated, and the chasm between the two "classes" became only great as our educations progressed.

If lack of motivation is the dividing factor, maybe we should look into that more and try to figure out the causes. I strongly suspect few 4-yr-olds think, "Hmm. When I grow up I want to be a looser." What changes, when, and why?

On the subject, I heard this story on NPR (LIBERAL MEDIA, OH NO!) this morning referencing a Gates Foundation study indicating that most high school dropouts left school not because they were failing, but because they were bored. I'd love to be surprised about that, but I'm not in the least.

Monica said...

That study sounds like it identified most of the causes of poverty, foremost among them being no support system. Sure, there's a certain amount of personal responsibility to be handed out, but without a support system, it takes an awfully special person to make it. Interesting parallels...

I can totally understand the bored with class concept. The classes that I had no motivation to work on or even pay attention in class were the really easy ones (ahem, Freshman English). If I didn't have someone standing over me with a stick, I wouldn't have gone to that class.

How do you fix motivation? I'm firmly convinced that for the majority of the teenage population that needs to start at home while the kid is still in the womb. :-) Seriously, the love of learning is a learned love for most people. And sometimes a large part of motivation is just plain old discipline, and kids by definition are not self-disciplined. So without someone at home doing some serious encouraging (end enforcing, when needed), I'm surprised to see any kid succeed on her own.

I don't think it's of any value to separate out the kids with drive and the ones without. You put a bunch of unmotivated, apathetic kids together, and you're only going to get deeper apathy. The ones with drive should be being taught to serve as a support system for the ones without.

mel said...

OK, you guys got me to go look up the verse about using the rod on children and actually think about what it's saying... thanks. :) (I'm still not anti-corporal punishment, but at least now I'm not going to use Proverbs to say that the Bible requires it!) (By the way, Monica, I'm not convinced that it leaves scars more than any other sort of punishment would, assuming you're just spanking and not beating the kid. I think the few spankings I received got my attention better than any other punishment would have. Maybe it's different for different people?)

Yeah, there are definitely classes that I wouldn't have gone to if I'd been given a choice! Civ lecture was one that always annoyed me (probably b/c I'd heard the same lectures from that teacher in 9th grade), although I loved my discussion classes.