The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Friday, August 09, 2013

The Narrative — Education

In thinking in greater detail about the narrative (also discussed in my last post), I've come to understand that it leads us astray in many aspects of public policy. The narrative is a meme, often proposed by politicians of either party, activists, and others. It is picked up by the MSM and cultivated to become conventional wisdom. In some cases, the original meme was fostered with good intentions—to try to make things better—but in many others it was developed cynically to provide benefit/power/influence to those who orginally developed it. In either case, once the narrative has been developed, the vast majority of "news" stories reinforce it. Investigative reports (once the mainstay of true journalists) avoid any mention of information that might negate the narrative in any significant way, and people who attack the narrative with countervailing facts are assailed as extremists or worse. The reason, of course, is that when the meme is adopted widely throughout the media, it becomes part of a broad area of subjects that all fall under the term "political correctness."

One of the most powerful narratives that has been fostered and continually expanded over the past 50 years is the K-12 education narrative. The core narrative is that we as a country are failing to properly educate K-12 students, particularly in urban areas. One corrollary, often fostered by Republicans, is that teachers are the culprit and that better education can only be achieved if we somehow force better teachers into the system. Another corrollary, fostered by Democrats, is that we don't spend enough money on education and that better results will occur if we just spend more dollars. Like all narratives (and their corrollaries), there's more to it than that. But if core truths conflict with The Narrative, political correctness nullifies those truths.

The Narrative and its corrollaries do have some truth to them, but they are fundamentally flawed because they don't provide broad context, leave out key factors that influence the education of the most vulnerable in our population, and forget that millions of students receive a fine education in this country and go on the become the innovators for the next generation.

Glen Reynolds has been discussing the problems of K-12 education for many years, and now suggests that the entire system is about to "implode"—particularly in urban settings. You only have to think about the abject failure of Detroit's education system to see the first signs of that implosion. Today, he posted a lengthy comment (at 8:26am) by a teacher that questions The Narrative. The Teacher asks for anonymity because his/her comment challenges The Narrative, speaking truth to political correctness. That's a dangerous thing to do in contemporary America. Here's the comment:

I’ve thought about this and thought about this. And I don’t care to have my name attached to these thoughts, as I’m currently a teacher, but I need to express them. As I peek into your corner of the internet, I see all sorts of posts about the k-12 implosion, and I thought you might be willing to listen.

We, as a society, mandate that all children must be in school until 16, and we must provide educational opportunity to the willing until 18. If there’s an IEP in place, that age can go as far as 21.

A school in which I used to teach was failing. Is failing. Has always failed. Our staff was more than 50% non-traditional teachers. We had a strong core of Teach For America and Teaching Fellows – neither of which pull in your regular “he who can’t? Teaches” anecdotes. Most of us were “wanting to help where we can” folks.

We couldn’t make a dent in that school.

The only reason that the 60% of the kids who bothered to show up daily even came to school was for the 2 free meals and the climate control. We needed a force of 15 security people to keep the kids IN CLASS. They had no desire to learn. They did not CARE if they failed. I never, ever had kids who started at my school as 9th graders and had enough credits to be juniors by their third year. Most didn’t even have enough credits to be sophomores. And this was when summer school was free!

Most of my 33-student classes had a regular showing of about 20-25, and it was never the same kids.

Those that did come were usually passed up to their current grade based on age – after all, who wants a 16-year-old boy in classes with an 11-year-old girl? No one. And we can’t just stop them all in 9th grade! Why, it would be full! So, I had kids who read at 2nd grade level to 11th grade level, with math scores in the same range. All in the same classroom. About 60% of the time.

Now, there were the other issues. I didn’t see them in my room, but we did have some mongo fights in the school. We had fires (never had to have drills because we had fires). Anything we didn’t have nailed down got stolen. But that’s all secondary. Mostly, I liked my kids a lot. I got along with them very well. I even taught some pretty good science when I had seniors – kids who had cared enough to slog through 4 years of prison-without-bars, as they called it.

The primary issue is that these children (and their parents) have no vested interest in education. If they merely showed up to school, I was required to pass them. The D’s in my class were really F’s, but I gave them D’s because they showed up enough that I knew failing them would do them no good and would only get me in a world of trouble.

They look at school as something that is done to them. Something that they are subjected to. Sure, all kids kind of view school like that. But when the family is not saying that it’s their job, when they simply don’t see that school gets them anything? There will be no successful school with these children.

By the way, most of the children we had swapping in and out of our EMO-run (like HMO only E for Education!) public school went to a local charter. That charter has since failed.

What really scares and saddens me is that this is where the argument on education reform is centered: on these kids who WILL NOT SUCCEED. I’m sorry. They won’t. The public school system I teach in has plenty of escape routes for kids with parents who care: from charters to special admit public schools. And most of those special admits? They succeed. Because the kids who don’t care are forced to leave.

(Don’t look at me like that. Most of those special admit contracts aren’t even academics-based. They’re attendance and behavior (no fighting) based. I teach at a school like that now. And it works.)

So these fat politicos go around slamming the teachers at these under-performing schools. Fine. Whatever. I could always go back to computer programming. But what got me was the great gobs of money that were shoved into that failing school. My school now? I have to buy my own equipment. All of it. I’m currently saving my Amazon dollars to buy calculators for my room, because school calculators are only for math classrooms. There? We had 35 Hooke’s Law experiment setups, just as a case in point. Chemicals, balances, optics, electronics, you name it? We had it. If great gobs of money are making it into the classroom, you’d better bet that there’s skimming off the top. In fact, when the school was being taken from its EMO partner because it was STILL failing 7 years after the EMO took it over, the local politicians got slammed for back-room deals where they were trying to take over the school. Those who didn’t have their hands in that cookie jar were just lining up to get “those poor public school tortured kids” onto the rolls of their charter schools.

It was something I was very familiar with. The charter schools would sign in, say, 100 kids in September. The checks for those kids clear from the state sometime, I’d say, around December. Because by January? Those failing kids were sent back to my public school. We’d get 20 kids back from the charters, and we could not turn them away. The reasons were myriad: truancy, tardiness, uniform violations, sass. Nothing the public schools can expel for. But the charters can. Meanwhile? I wonder if they report to the state that they dropped Suzy Sunshine off their rolls, and she’s now back in the public school system? I wonder what happens to the rest of the money?

There HAS to be a reason that all of the politicians in this big city are lining up to have their own sponsored charter schools. And I’m betting altruism has little to do with it.

So, to recap: The big comprehensive schools are failing. And it is not surprising. But many of the other public schools are not. And letting politicians have yet another way to steal money from the people is bad.

There are core truths in what this teacher says. Truths that run counter to The Narrative. Truths that if recognized might (over time) lead to better approaches and at the same time, lower expenditures. But truth is often anethema to The Narrative. It threatens the benefit/power/influence of those who originally developed it.

And for that reason, you won't see educators like this teacher interviewed on 60 Minutes. Not a chance.