Thursday, March 21, 2013

Maybe We Should Just Give Up On Having City Schools

Through an odd confluence of events, I was thinking about schools even more than usual. First, because I was at my school trying my best to help kids learn. Second, I got some email from someone at my local paper who is writing about how music and art programs are the first things to fall in schools. And third, as I was driving to my daughters' school for pick-up, I listened to _Talk of the Nation_ discussing schools. It's been a heavy duty education day for me. Luckily, I have a lot to learn.

The question on _Talk of the Nation_ was this: what is the one thing you would change about city schools to make them better? It's a good question except that narrowing down to just one thing is pretty damn tough. I don't have an answer beyond money. That's the one thing I would change. I would fund city schools at 50% higher rates than their suburban counterparts. Thus, in my neck of the woods, I would take the spending per student at Fayetteville-Manlius and require half again as much for every kid in the Syracuse City School District. This would allow for more teachers to be hired, better buildings to be constructed, and possibly a heating plant in my daughters' school that didn't require most every window in the building to be open all winter.

Money doesn't solve every problem, it can't buy me love either, but here's the thing: without money everything is pretty awful. There is simply no level playing field in our schools and so we ought to be spending more money on the least advantaged kids. Well, unless you believe that poor kids just don't matter. In that case, why have the schools at all?

The guy from the newspaper has asked how cuts in education had affected kids in the city schools when it came to music and art education. I responded that those programs had been decimated at my daughters' school in order to accommodate the slashed budget and the need for a whole lot more testing. He wrote to thank me for sharing my opinion and I shared some more. The problem, I told him, is that art and music are seen as play and thus not as important as the work that kids need to do. My thinking is that the kinds of work students are being asked to do is mostly drudgery meant to prep them for tests which are themselves drudgery. In other words, our children are being sent to work at a crappy job they are learning to despise and their pay (the learning that is supposed to be fostered in school) has declined precipitously with the new testing regimen.

Along with this, their classes are gigantic and increasingly out of control. My daughters' friends are beginning to leave for the private schools. Their teachers are being laid off. The programs that draw them into school and learning are being cut. And these changes are largely marked as positive reform. I beg to differ.

Which brings me to my own classroom and my work with a seventh-grader I'll call Frank. This is a boy who won't sit still. He crawls under desks. He jumps onto the heater. He throws things. He whines and complains. Today, it was my job to get him to take an interim assessment which, for those not able to break the code, is a standardized test assigned to every kid in the school system who is in that grade regardless of who is teaching him, what they are studying, or who they are. My guy has an abusive father and an absent mother. He doesn't bathe but twice a week and he uses drugs regularly. He wants to be Bob Marley.

In order to get him to do the test (something on which my job depends seeing as how test scores are the prime indicator of who I am as a teacher given the reforms) I had to sit next to him and say, feet on the floor, butt in the chair, paper down on the desk, stop  playing drums on the desk, don't carve into the desk, and so on. I spent forty-four minutes (I timed it) sitting with him, trying to get him settled enough to answer a few of the questions.

He answered three. There are at least twenty on the test.

Schools are broken but they don't have to be. Here's what I propose: everything that we're doing in the reforms, do the opposite. It's the George Castanza pedagogy. We're doing it poorly now. We've cut the money, laid off the teachers and teacher aids, introduced checklists, quadrupled the testing, and sucked the fun out of schools especially in the cities. I'm beginning to think that no school would be better than the schools we're running. Kids would at least get out in the sunshine that way.

Ugh. Write on.