Sunday, March 6, 2011

It's Going To Get Worse Before It Gets Better

March 6, 2011

Seriously, I'm an optimist. A Pollyanna. A Happy-Day-Sunshine kinda gal. But my goodness the world of education is beginning to look bleak. If I am to understand the vision of things to come, my classes will be much bigger next year, but there will be no money for books or supplies with which to teach the kids. We are already seating 40 in classrooms designed to hold 28--and I teach seniors, many of whom are six-feet-plus guys trying to fit comfortably in comically tiny desks, feet splayed out from underneath, obstacles to anyone trying to navigate the room.

No big deal. What's a few more bodies here and there? But wait. There's also the constant threat of becoming a Program Improvement School-even for the highest ranking schools-because not everyone is improving year to year at a steady and for some, unrealistic pace. Sure, we're making improvements. Our kids are learning, and they are achieving. But the data we depend upon to determine teachers' efficacy in raising all students' test scores can be flawed, can be skewed. And it certainly doesn't take into account less access to resources (due to budget cuts) and bigger class sizes, which will necessarily lead to less teacher-student contact time and fewer assignments given--or fewer assignments which require meaningful feedback in order assess students' progress and in order for students to improve. It also doesn't take into account student motivation, which can be affected by any number of things, including disillusionment and apathy toward the tests themselves, which most of them are wise enough to realize are more often used as a teacher assessment tool than a student assessment, and lack of motivation due to other, more pressing issues in their lives, like perhaps the fact that their parents are losing their homes due to unemployment, and they've got take time they could be studying to pack up. Or to grieve the loss of their childhood home. (Perhaps it makes sense to mention here that some of your teachers are losing their houses as well, due to pay cuts and increases in contributions to cover a health care plan for those who are lucky, pink slips for those who aren't so lucky.)

So, let's see...more kids, fewer resources, questionable data determining effectiveness. Okay, really these aren't new. What else is going on?

Race to the Top, No Child Left Behind--good ideas in theory. Of course we want all kids to succeed; of course we don't want to leave any child behind. Many of us have our own children in the system, and we wouldn't want OUR kids left behind. So how do we make it work? How do we make sure we Leave No Child Behind? (Never mind the fact that not all kids are motivated to put forth an effort. Yes, it is an educator's job to try to encourage and motivate and involve kids, but there really MUST be some responsibility on the part of the students and parents as well.) I am no statistician, but I would guess that the numbers of furlough days school districts are imposing in order to close massive budget gaps can't put us ahead in the Race to the Top. Another budget stop-gap? Eliminating massive numbers of Guidance and Learning Specialists, counselors, nurses, and security staff, not to mention whole programs designed to engage otherwise disenfranchised kids. Kids who have health issues, emotional issues, transitional needs, or difficulty becoming connected on campus are going to have far fewer opportunities to seek help from some of the traditional caregivers on their campuses--they aren't going to be there nearly as often, and when they are, there's going to be a much bigger line to wait in before those folks are available. No Child Left Behind? We'll see how many of those kids with special needs don't feel left behind. And those kids without special needs? Well, they are out of luck, too, because it's going to be a matter of putting out fires, and kids who aren't in immediate distress will fly under the radar, whether they want to or not. I'm certainly not suggesting this is what should happen, or what anyone wants to happen--I'm merely saying that it's an inevitable outcome of the bleak economic forecast.

Is our system of education without flaws? Absolutely not. There are complacent teachers, top-heavy administrations, and students who don't get the attention and care they deserve. These are not the norm, however, and I can't see that vilifying the profession of educators as greedy, lazy, uncaring people just out for an easy paycheck is in any way productive. I can't profess to have all the answers, but I'm fairly certain the polarizing rhetoric in the media isn't going to improve anything. Fostering a sense of distrust and resentment among all the key players--social, economic, and political entities--is bound to ultimately cause far more harm than good. We should not be afraid of change, and we need to continue to make improvements, but perhaps we should try to narrow down key issues and focus on those specifics, rather than advocating throwing out the baby with the bathwater. There are lots of good people, hard-working, caring, and dedicated, whose intentions and voices are being drowned out by a focus on the flaws in the system being turned into personal affronts and generalizations about the perceived lost generation floundering in our schools. Many of our best are being driven away from the profession, 'encouraged' to take a money-saving early retirement, or simply losing hope in the idea of being able to make a difference to kids in a system moving toward a scripted, forced, and rote curriculum 'inspired' by teaching to the test which will 'prove' how smart the kids are. Creative, innovative thinking? Yeah, there's no place to bubble that on a scantron. Nix that. Empathy, caring, responsibility, citizenship? We don't have time for those things either--they're not on the test. Is that the kind of education we really want?

At this point, the argument usually devolves into a republican versus democrat versus independent versus everyone else. A liberal versus conservative argument. A class issue. A gender issue. An us-against-them, no matter who us is, no matter who them is. Here's the big revelation, though--no one group caused this problem, and no one group is going to be the savior riding in on the white horse. All of that is just posturing, designed far more with political gain in mind than actual, true reform which will enable us to reach as many kids as possible in the most meaningful way. These are all of our kids, and this problem belongs to all of us.

I am happy to have my job; I am blessed to be able to teach kids every day. But I anticipate a hard, uphill battle over the next few years as the economy tries to recover and education attempts to continue doing more with less while under public scrutiny as a scapegoat for all that is wrong with the country. Here's to hoping most of us, the teachers and the kids, manage to come out the other side relatively unscathed. I'm not sure it's a realistic hope, but I am, as I have said, an optimist.


  1. If every body had your common sense attitude Donna. thing's would be much better. I am very proud of you.

  2. I needed to read this... I'll need to come back and read again soon. I'm usually the optimist in my building.

  3. I wrote a letter to Governor S. last year that was similar to yours, however; you have really captured so much more than I could have anticipated. I received a response from the Govenor that was mostly written to make me feel like he was interested, which I really doubt. Thank you for posting your letter, and I am hoping it reaches all of those who do not understand what is really taking place in our schools.

  4. Excellent commentary of the predicaments we all find ourselves in Donna. It's not easy being a student or teacher these days. I just hope that one day education will not be as politicized as it is now and teachers can get back to real teaching. Thanks!

    B. Riley