Friday, May 3, 2013

School as Factory, School as Family

It's easy to say what I don't like about my daughters' schooling in the Syracuse City School District. A better challenge is to say what I wish their school looked like while understanding that I can't wish away all the problems. There will be problem kids, state tests, and too little money. Given those constrictions, what kind of school do I wish for my kids?

First task: a new way of thinking about school.

My daughters have just endured six days of state testing preceded by weeks of drill and kill test-prep. They've also taken a whole host of district-wide tests to fit the regimented curriculum designed by the district and put upon teachers often mere days prior to its implementation. Rather than trust teachers to teach, the district trusts them only to dispense a canned curriculum.

This is all symptomatic of a school system leaning heavily on a corporate or factory model in which kids are products built on an assembly line that begins at kindergarten when parents deliver the raw materials to the plant and ends with kids outputted at graduation for businesses and colleges to consume. Quarterly and annual progress is the rule and deviation from it, as measured by standardized testing, is failure.

Kids are a series of data points. Third grade ELA state test scores, fifth grade report cards, and eleventh grade Regents exams. In a big system like the Syracuse City School District, data is the only imaginable way to manage things. How else but through a spreadsheet or database can we keep track of all those schools, teachers, and kids?

There are better ways.

Begin by changing from a corporate/factory model to a community/family model. I know that this sounds pie-in-the-sky, but it's not. Communities and families, as organizing principles go, have proven themselves over the years.

My daughters attend Edward Smith K-8 school in Syracuse. We chose Ed Smith because it was a community. Kids were known, teachers and administrators were engaged, the school was allied with Syracuse University. For several years, both my daughters have enjoyed school a great deal.

That situation has changed tremendously this year.

(We have a new principal at Ed Smith and I want to be sure that I don't see the negative changes resulting from his stewardship of the school. He is working hard and I appreciate the things he is doing and trying to do. The changes stem from the district, state, and Department of Education.)

The school district has jumped head first into the new Common Core State Standards despite any data showing their benefit to kids. To raise the standards, the district is creating an entirely new curriculum and an array of testing to be sure that teachers are teaching and kids are learning. The state testing, also being rushed to align with the Common Core, has been changed so as to make it "more rigorous" and demanding.

Because of this (and severe underfunding) my daughters have had a year of test preparation and missed opportunities. Class size has increased as have discipline problems. Extra-curricular activities have been cut back because the teachers aren't available and time cannot be spared from test-preparation.

Meanwhile, neither of my daughters will use the school bathrooms because they are unsafe, unsanitary, and in such need of repair that there is no privacy to be had there.

In a corporation/factory, the test scores take precedent over extra-curriculars, factory conditions, and a sense of belonging. Corporations focus on the balance sheet, factories turn out widgets in volume.

In short, families raise kids and communities shelter and nurture them. Corporations use kids to make money and factories churn kids out as cheaply as they can. I want my kids school to be a community, a family.

I haven't yet made concrete suggestions for what to do on Monday. That's alright. Philosophy comes first. The Syracuse City School District needs to ground everything in the theory of school as community/family, a place where we come together to care for one another and promote learning.

The teachers at Edward Smith know my kids. They knew them better in years previous, but they work hard despite testing, new curricula, and Common Core nonsense. I don't need a spreadsheet to tell me how my daughters are faring. I'd rather speak with their teachers. Despite it all, the teachers still think of community and family. Imagine the power of that becoming district policy. Each school creating a community that serves its particular population of students as a family.

I'll write more about this through next week. There's a whole lot to think about and imagine. There are changes we can make. This is just the beginning. Onward we go. Write on.