Sunday, December 8, 2013

Four Schools: Section One

Maybe a year ago I thought about writing up my experiences in the four schools I've worked in: a public school, a charter school, a school abroad, and a private school.

This is a very rough draft of the first section, on public schools. Who knows. Maybe some day I can whip it all together into a book.

Note - the next posts on the blog are not likely to be part of this series. I'll add them as I get to them. Also, feedback is kindly appreciated.

The Public School:
Dad Works at the Factory

Part One

I was five years out of high school when I began teaching it. Over the summers I’d had some practice, taken on an internship the year before, and was now getting my Masters.

The best part of my Graduate program was that it required a full year of student teaching. From August to June I’d be co-teaching and running my own classes at a typical public school, with some 1,000 students. For reference, it was one of the largest high schools in Vermont.

Previously I’d been nestled amongst the green hills of that state, nourished by the rich yolk of seminars, parties, lectures, and girlfriends within a protective college shell. I’d never interacted with the townsfolk and knew nothing about their lives. Besides working at the College, I wasn’t sure what else people in the town even did to make ends meet.

My college bubble didn’t pop, like soap, but deflated, like gum. A class was taught senior year by the headmaster and dean of the high school I’d be working at, fittingly titled ‘Classroom Teaching: Theory into Practice’. Gone were the theorists, Piaget, Dewey and Freire. We instead spoke of realities. What do you do, as an elementary teacher, when you read ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ and they can’t stop laughing at ‘pussy’? What happens if, as a high school teacher, one of them tries to knife you? The idea was to ease the transition from college debutante to rookie teacher.

No one is a great teacher their first year. Your beginner year of teaching is when you make mistakes, are shocked by students’ abilities, disillusioned by their vulgarity, and moved by their sincerity. From this point on in your life you will be remembered. Perhaps you’ll be the one they hated, or the one who came through when no other teacher would. It’s a heavy weight, an emotional triage, and, while all this touchy-feely stuff is going on, you’re also supposed to make sure they know who Ferdinand Magellan is.

History was my subject, world history my specialty. I’ve noticed, wherever I go, that this usually peters out around World War One. Content is a serious difficulty for history teachers. Why, you could ask, learn content at all? The Internet has now made content knowledge so accessible, on a student’s phone, that if a student wants to know what became of Louis XIV they can find it out, in less than 20 seconds. This is one of the many questions that aren’t seriously asked, why still learn content? These are the sorts of questions I was thinking on, as well as the more pedestrian, such as why the copier seemingly hated me.

Most of us weren’t raised in Vermont (I wasn’t), but most Americans did go to public school. That’s where my teaching experience started. It was the 2008/09 school year, and none of us knew the recession was here to stay. In light of the economic downfall tens of thousands of teachers were laid off, and public schools were hurting. But this precariousness in public education was nothing new.

Part Two
The sturdy Oak, it was the tree
That saved his royal majesty.

Peter denies
His Lord and cries.

Queen Esther comes in royal state,
To save the Jews from dismal fate.

The above are from The New England Primer, published as the first school textbook in the Colonies, in the 1680s. But the Puritans and their ilk aren’t the originators. After all, the Spanish were in Florida, the Southwest and California nearly a century before the Primer was printed, and Native Americans could get a basic Christian education in the missions.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that, as a history teacher, I started looking at the story of public schooling. Beyond these early progenitors, though, education didn’t take off until the 1840s. The federal government played little role in education, so states differed widely in their support for public education, as opposed to the well-established private schools. The force behind this change was Horace Mann, Secretary of Education, who worked to ensure all Americans had the ‘three Rs’ of Reading, Writing and Reckoning.

America, industrially, was beginning to flourish by this time. The rise of this industrialism would determine Mann’s innovations in the States. Here the factory model begins to infiltrate education. When we regard, sentimentally, the one-room school house, with children of all ages learning from the kindly teacher in the front of the room, we are thinking to what Mann began to erase. The new idea, fundamentally industrial, was that we begin educating kids by age, with first graders being separated from sixth graders and so on. Sir Ken Robinson, a contemporary educationalist, has identified how Mann’s changes still apply today:

“We still educate children by batches. We put them through the system by age group. Why do we do that? Why is there this assumption that the most important thing kids have in common is how old they are? It’s like the most important thing about them is their date of manufacture.”

But, as Robinson continues, we all know of cases where different students excel and different subjects at different ages. Boys, typically, don’t take to math until later than girls, for example. Reading, multiplication tables, analytical writing – these are skills that we all develop at different ages. Sure, there are broad trends, you’re not likely to be doing complex multiplication in kindergarten. But some do. And some do in eighth grade. And maybe that’s okay.

What Mann set in motion was a process of standardizing education. It’s a concept that would cycle back periodically throughout our history. It arose with the industrial revolution because that was the concept that the industrial world prized. When Karl Marx complained about the factory system he griped that it took away autonomy. (His communist cures, of course, were inadequate to deal with the very real problem he identified.) This lack of individualism that factories in the industrial revolution created was passed on to the schools that were designed like factories.

The process of implementing this was a long time coming. The Civil War disrupted things, as a start. Frontier states had to develop solid boundaries before tackling systematic education. But once unified, the nation’s schooling would start to have problems.

Part Three

There’s around 99,000 public schools in the U.S. The problem is numerical. Those schools serve over 50 million students. It ends up averaging to some 507 students per school. The student-teacher ratio stands around 15:1. But these are national averages – most schools do not have 507 students and classrooms capped at 15 students.

Why is this? The reason is population, which is not evenly distributed. Wyoming has 366 public schools serving 88,000 students. As such they average 240 students per school, not surprising for a sparsely populated state, with large distances between towns. New York City, by contrast, with a dense population, has 1,700 schools, serving 1.1 million students – averaging 647 students per school.

That’s a lot of people to keep track of. Public schooling was designed to promote basic literacy and competence. Idealistically it’s designed to make good citizens. Being a good citizen not only means knowing how to vote, but also how to work, how to raise a healthy family, and how to improve the quality of life in America. That’s why the federal government is involved.

The big shift came in 1965. That year a law was passed called ‘The Elementary and Secondary Education Act’ (ESEA) during Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty”. The reason for this development was due to shifting historical factors. Between the turn of the century and 1965 something totally distinct from education had taken place, which would radically alter education: World War One.

Modern war required modern soldiers, but who were they? Bayonets take less training than an airplane to use. Intelligence was the problem – cannon fodder farmers weren’t good enough anymore. Alfred Binet applied the principle of quantifying things, assigning a number to measure accurately, to psychology and intelligence, while a professor at Stanford, Lewis Terman, popularized it. The Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale is more commonly known as an IQ test. The SAT really is the child of Binet. One of its first applications was being given to soldiers in WWI, to determine readiness for modern warfare. The descendants of that test are obsessed over by parents and students worldwide. Binet never intended any of this. Terman, however certainly did. But Terman’s goal of standardized testing was more in line with eugenic purposes, a grave reminder of the danger of assigning a person a number.

The SAT had been around since the 1920s before Johnson’s ESEA law made such tests a cornerstone of our education system. In the 1920s Progressive education was hitting its peak, not coincidentally perhaps. Progressive education focused on the individual student, and the role of exploration and democracy in the classroom. American philosopher John Dewey had been the biggest name in the movement. But there were others, Italian Maria Montessori, and Austrian Rudolf Steiner, most notably. What they have in common is active engagement, instead of passive learning. Not surprisingly this was antithetical to the rising dominance of standardization in the post-war years. With the Cold War on, and a concern for competition, individualism was on the decline. Just as war had provided an impetus to creating standardization, so too it would continue to fight it after another World War, three decades later.

Conservatism of the McCarthy stripe was skeptical of individualism, and aberration. At the same time an anti-Progressive work, ‘Why Johnny Can’t Read’ was published in 1955. This work had a solid intention, to teach kids to read with use of phonics. However, at the time, Progressive elementary schools were using context reading, and so it stood as a criticism of their system. It’s no surprise then than Johnson passed a law with standardization as a cornerstone of education.

Public schools today are now under No Child Left Behind, passed in 2001. This is the most significant update of the ESEA, and education generally, since 1965.

Part Four

Vermont, small as it is, is divided in two parts. The leaf-peeping, syrup-tapping, Ben and Jerry’s creating north, known as the Northern Kingdom, and the South. I was in the South, and it basically felt like an extension of Western Massachusetts, or upstate New York. Albany was closer than Burlington. Southern Vermont, unlike the Northern Kingdom, once attempted to industrialize. The ubiquitous cows are not so ubiquitous down there. There are Wal-Marts and chain stores, and poverty.

Still, according to the numbers, agriculture and related industries make up a third of the town’s economy. It’s a rural setting; a Winter’s Bone atmosphere soaks the back roads (although meth hasn’t blighted the town as far as I know). Fittingly, amongst the foliage, Robert Frost is buried on a hill. It is a mix of modern strip and New England charm, rural town and developed settlement. Excepting the cities, it represents what most kids in America will experience in high school. Approximately 65 million teens will live in this, with nothing better to do on a Friday night than bum cigarettes, think of James Dean and Eminem, and get drunk.

Mount Anthony Union High School has about 1,000 students, their mascot is the Patriots, and their colors are red, white, and blue. Mount Anthony has been ahead of the curve with education reform, in large part due to their population: a solid portion of the students and their families, are simply getting by.

For example, they built a dentist’s office on-site. “If a kid has a toothache, how can you expect them to focus on a test in class?” asks MAUHS Principal Sue Maguire. Once a week a dentist comes in, looks at the teeth of kids whose family can’t afford such attention, and continues to help alleviate the effects of poverty on schooling.

Educational statistics are often debated counter-argued, and misinterpreted. A classic example was the supposed connection between classical music and intelligence in young children. This was an inflation of a study that suggested listening to classical music right before a test on spatial relations improved performance. From this, “Baby Mozart” TM.

However, studies have consistently confirmed, over decades, that poverty is the greatest factor on educational performance. Most basically, poverty leads to increased absenteeism and dropouts. If a child of 13 is also the primary care-provider for their siblings, school becomes far less important. Development is also delayed disproportionately in poor children, just as learning disabilities increase.

Bennington, Vermont, has a poverty level around 25% of the population. For under-fives that increases to around 40% for male children, and stays around 25% for females. 67% of this poverty is represented by single-female households. Bennington is not unique. The national figures show that under-18 around 22% of students in the U.S. live in poverty.

Increasingly the demarcation between poverty and ‘just getting by’ is blurring. Middle class is defined as around $50,000 for annual income, maybe less in semi-rural Vermont. (Although for the Northeast the median hovers a little above that at $53,000.) The average male income, almost $10,000 more than female, stands at $39,400 in the town I first taught.

But there was more to it than numbers. It was an obvious condition of the student’s lives, with kids wearing the same shirt to class every day. Not that every kid fell into this category. Many, indeed likely most, were doing fine, no different from the city and suburban kids in other towns and states.

Part Five

No Child Left Behind was bipartisan. Ted Kennedy and John Boehner both supported the bill.

It’s been more than a decade since the law was passed, and we can start to study the data of what exactly has come of this major shift. Many students have gripes (nothing new) as do teachers and parents. But anecdote is less reliable than what we can measure, and since measurement is the main point of the law, there should be clear data answering whether students are doing better by NCLB or not.

First off, many teachers and administrators scoffed at the goals. 100% proficiency sounds admirable, but if you gave every kid in the US a test to write their name, some would still screw it up. 100% is not achievable. So a decade later, it’s not surprising that nearly half of American schools haven’t reached the law’s proficiency goals, 48%. The number should strike us as high, though.

Reading stayed the same in 8th and 12th graders. The disparity between blacks and whites, well-off and poor, these remained too. NCLB hasn’t addressed the problem. It made teachers focus on the test and, as testing hours increased per year, diminished active learning hours.

According to a 2012 study by the National Center for Fair and Open Testing this led to a serious problem:

“Then there is the cheating epidemic that has erupted across the nation. In Atlanta, where cheating was confirmed in 44 public schools, involving 178 teachers and principals, a Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) report described a culture of “fear, intimidation and retaliation spread throughout the district” (GBI, 2011). As 2011 came to a close, Georgia investigators released another report documenting widespread cheating on tests in Dougherty Country, 200 miles south of Atlanta. They found evidence of cheating in each of the county’s 11 schools and similar evidence of teachers coerced into correcting students’ wrong answers. The report cited three main causes of the cheating. Reason number one: “Pressure to meet adequate yearly progress under the No Child Left Behind Act.””

Furthermore “According to published reports, incidents of cheating in the past three years have been confirmed in 30 states and the District of Columbia” raising alarming questions about the nature of this new testing environment’s effects on communities.

A broad social observation could argue that the reason we didn’t reach 100% was due to the recession – and since the U.S. doesn’t fund/prioritize education in amounts comparable to other developed countries – the cuts that resulted in the lackluster results. But to suggest this merely confirm that NCLB is nowhere near as important as economic factors in determining success, not some matrix of standardized tests and incentives.

The students entering college now are the recipients of this poor education. Our youth vote.

Is it surprising then, with such a failed policy doing a decade’s worth of damage, that colleges and universities have seen a rise of 28-40% of undergrads take a remedial course? Or that the gaps black and white are still apparent, with 42% of black students needing remediation compared to 31% of white? If the tests are so standard, these socio-economic factors wouldn’t have an effect, would they?

Part Six

Student teaching is not easy. You are basically apprenticing – seeing if the career choice you picked is what you wanted it to be. It’s the first time you have adult powers in the classroom setting.

Back at the college, there were only a few in my graduate program – six or seven. It was the fall of 2008. Being as it was Vermont there was a lot of celebrating when Obama was elected. For prospective teachers, though, there seemed to be more menacing clouds rolling in over the green mountains. As grad students we were all wondering if we’d have jobs next fall. Looking over my old reflections and work from the time, I find a consistent theme in writing. From my official portfolio, ‘First Student Profile’:

“‘I can't stand you and I can't stand this class.’

“Lyndsey has proved to be one of my most difficult students.

“When the Dean and I pressed her for details none were forthcoming. She seemed convinced that she was going to fail, but why she thought so was unclear.

“From my perspective the reasons were obvious: she didn't do work, would walk out of class (when she showed up) and was, in general I thought, a disrespectful and rude kid.

“However, I was prepared to work with her and get her back on track, which is why I had arranged this meeting with Dave the Dean in the first place. That, and because the last interaction we'd shared was her screaming at me and storming out of the computer lab…

“… This case has been vital to my understanding of teaching in that with some students their performance is a combination of external and internal pressures. Sometimes as a teacher, you have to recognize your limitations and allow other forces to work with you in tandem to help the student succeed. In this case Lyndsey's success, while mild, required a combination of patience on my part with greater parental and administrative pressures, and finally her own self-discipline to get done what needed to be done.

Looking back, Lyndsey was a typical kid, and I wouldn’t blink my eyes at her conduct now.  I now work almost exclusively with difficult cases.  Hers was an early and important lesson. But beyond the frequent bouts of confusion, frustration, and enjoyment, I ended the portfolio with the following:

“As regards where I may be teaching next year my net has been cast wide. The areas and schools that need teachers are many and distributed across the country. I may find myself working in Washington, or Washington D.C. This seeming complacency is not due to a lack of interest in where I teach – there are certain places I have ruled out – but instead stems from an acknowledgment that strong teachers are needed almost everywhere.

“Similarly I have not ruled out working in a public, private, or charter school. Depending on the vacancies and areas any of these positions could be beneficial to the community. I am attempting, in as much as I have learned from my practicum experience, to be flexible, patient, and dedicated to wherever I end up, and whomever I end up working with.”

Sure enough my path through education across the next five years would encompass all that and more. I left Mt. Anthony with recommendations in my pocket, a year of classroom experience under my belt, and a Masters in Teaching in hand, ready to take on the impersonal system of America’s public schools. 

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