Friday, June 5, 2009

School Daze

School Daze

The CHP are poised with radar in front of a school in Altadena and I am pulled over for going too fast. I drive five days a week 13 miles to the 16 year old’s school and then 9 miles to drop Spuds at his and then 9 miles to my office. It takes around 90 minutes. Spuds is in a carpool so we repeat the route in the afternoon and drop off two kids on the top of Mt. Washington two days a week. Spuds is driven home with carpool three days a week and the 16 year old endures a sometimes two-hour bus/train trip. I walked to elementary school, rode my bike-- although it would have been a ten-minute walk-- to junior high and rode a bike and then drove a car to the local high school, my driver’s license rendering me unable to self-propel.

I burst into tears as soon as the cop returns to my car with my ticket. I know that this will make Spuds late for school and he will be forced to spend the first period sitting on a dirty rug on a cement floor as punishment. There are other parents who log more miles to escape their home schools and kids whose parents don’t get the intricacies of the system who languish in the schools some of us would turn tricks on Santa Monica Blvd. to avoid.

My party line for rationalizing leaving Grant High School for an early college admission program was that it was stagnant and stultifying but having to resort to sending my own kids to farflung and problematic (but less unsatisfactory than any of our other options) charter schools, I realize what an exemplary institution it was. The counselor there intuited that I needed out, mainly of the house, and helped me find an early admission program at a school that fit my anarchic tendencies and whose idiosyncratic standards increased the likelihood of my acceptance for admission. There was no investment required of my parents. I was on the college track the day I began kindergarten at Riverside Drive Elementary School. My parents were seldom compelled to advocate on my behalf. The school took care of it. I stayed in touch with many of my high school teachers long after graduating college. As of yet, neither of my boys has made a significant connection with a junior high or high school teacher.

I had trouble with math and have never had an ability to remember numbers. I need telephone numbers repeated several times before I can write them down correctly. I have never completely memorized the multiplication tables. My parents and most of my teachers shrugged off these struggles, because I was a girl. I finally passed Algebra One, in 10th grade, when most of my friends were in Trig, and only because it was a total dumbbell class and was graded on a curve and you got extra points for showing up and I squeaked by with a C minus. I landed, in tenth grade though, with Fred Carrington for geometry. He was the best teacher I ever had. He imparted his passion for the beauty of mathematics with such an enthusiasm for sharing it with us, that I, slightly hindered by the times table thing, earned a B and a wonderful sense of accomplishment when everyone else had accepted my inevitable failure. I always tried to channel Fred Carrington before I taught a class. Several months ago, I was able to track down his e-mail and send him a note, thanking him. In searching him out, I discovered that he had won a prestigious Disney teaching award. This dashed my fantasy that after a lifetime of unacknowledged toil, my letter would be the crowning jewel of his career. I did get a nice note back and I know it made him happy that I remembered him so fondly after so many decades.

A charter school is essentially a private school that agrees to meet certain criteria in order to receive public funds. Generally, these schools get the same amount of money as regular public schools (about 12k per kid per year in California). Unlike public schools though, charter schools have to pay rent and often have inadequate support staff and less qualified teachers. Nevertheless, across the board, charter school students outperform public school students on standardized tests.

We have been involved in three different charter schools. One disintegrated ala Lord of the Flies and I have strong and mixed feelings about the other two. Both were started by moms looking to create an alternative for their own kids. All of the founders share a distinctive, nearly palpable, visionary quality. All are either loved unquestioningly and with cult of personality obeisance or hated forcefully by the parents. Some of us swing back and forth.

The principal/founder at the 16-year-old’s-school is one of the most genuinely gentle souls I have ever met. She is elusive though and does not publish her e-mail address. She holds by prior appointment, first-come first-served, telephone chats with parents on Thursday morning only. The focus of the school is building community and philosophy and resources dictate that the common good always takes precedence over the needs of an individual student. It is hard to get calls returned and the dissemination of information is pokey or nonexistent. I have had to advocate a number of times and always feel guilty when I ask that my kid’s specific needs be given consideration.

We let Spuds make the choice to transfer to the school his brother attends in September. His current school sponsors no social activities, clubs, athletics or anything smacking of fun. The academic and performing arts programs doggedly enforce what sometimes seem like impossibly high standards and graduates have been admitted to very competitive schools. It is a totalitarian regime and parent input is unwelcomed and ignored. Big brother’s 10th grade class reads mainly politically correct middlebrow contemporary fiction. Spuds is reading Marshall McLuhan. We explain to Spuds that his chances of getting into the college of his choice and his prognosis for success thereat will probably be better if he stays where he is. We appreciate the rigorousness of the school, but Spuds, faced with the joylessness, chooses to go for the basketball team and mediocre popular fiction.

Himself will get on his immigrants sucking resources out the mouths of our kids rant when I whine about how my own public school education was far superior, even though we drive all over creation, to the best we can wrangle for our kids. Other kids don’t have parents who can drive to charters or pay for tutors or talk about Kafka at the dinner table. Nearly 86% of white kids graduate from high school but only 52% of Hispanic kids do. There are those who accuse Latino families of not valuing education but Mexico and El Salvador, with the most miniscule of resources for education, have 91% and 81% literacy rates respectively. My former students who began their education in these or other Hispanic countries held the teaching profession in higher esteem than any other group of students I ever worked with.

The L.A. Times reported ("Spitting in the Eye of Public Education") on the Oakland area American Indian Charter Schools whose teacher recruitment bulletin reads "We are looking for hard working people who believe in free market capitalism. . . . Multicultural specialists, ultra liberal zealots and college-tainted oppression liberators need not apply." It reports the school’s test scores are among the highest in the state. It also reveals that it is suspected that the school has concealed efforts to handpick students (all charter admissions should be via lottery) and there are other legitimate concerns, but the reality is that most (98%) of the students are minorities and economically disadvantaged and their families have rejected the bleeding heart liberal warm fuzzy promote ‘em so that they don’t feel bad approach we’ve taken with minority kids since they’ve come to represent such a high percentage of our students.

The statistics look different and become more meaningful, and sad, when income is weighed beside race as a factor. This chart compares SAT scores based on race and family income:

white -w black-b Hispanic-h Asian-a

v-verbal, m-math
income x $1000.00

income---wv--wm--bv- bm--hv--hm--av--am
under 10--409 460 320 315 330 386 343 482
10-20----- 418-459 337 369 349 403 363 500
20-30----- 428-471 352 382 369 420 397 518
30-40 -----433-478 362 393 384 431 415 528
40-50 ---- 439-488 375 405 399 446 432 537
50-60----- 446-498 382 414 409 456 444 549
60-70----- 453 506 385 415 415 458 453 558
over 70----475 533 407 442 430 478 476 595
overall-----448 4 98 376 426 356 388 418 538

Himself teaches at private for-profit technical college that does a lot of recruitment of minority students and gives lip service to humanities only to the extent necessary to fulfill the requirements of the Bachelor of Science degrees they sell. The climate has been corporate for years and the students are considered consumers and it is not a goal of the institution that their course work foster personal growth. The curriculum has gotten more and more boilerplate in the name of "consistency" and "efficiency;" the "General Education" faculty are now mainly facilitators and have no latitude whatsoever in the choice of reading or writing assignments. My beloved is in love with learning and is one of the most dynamic teachers I have ever seen. His employer, which values his PhD merely because it looks good for accreditation, has effectively broken his spirit and cynically has deprived his students from partaking of his gift.

Students at “real” colleges often fare no better than the victims of technical schools that depend on selling the promise of employment to potential students. Himself publishes and presents at conferences frequently and the administration of his college has not been supportive of his efforts to grow as a teacher and a scholar and in fact has disparaged this a number of times. Ironically, this type of activity and the prestige it generates are the life blood of non-technical colleges and often there is such great pressure to publish and present that students are given the short shrift. The faculty is so busy amassing accomplishments to dazzle tenure committees, that there is no time or incentive to actually mentor students.

The New York Times reports ("Next Test") about a new charter school being started in Washington Heights. The teachers are to be paid $125,000 annually and have been recruited with excruciating care from all over the country. When I taught, I put at least two hours of prep time into each hour I actually taught, plus many additional hours grading student work and I spent time before and after school and on weekends working with individual students. It probably works out to about $4.00 an hour so $125,000.00 per annum is almost fair.

I worked in about a dozen different schools and just as I find now at the kids’ schools, there were some competent and committed teachers and administrators. Then, as now unfortunately, there were also a frightening number who were lazy, stupid or actually mentally ill. Good teachers are often disrespected and kicked around and the union keeps this from being even more rampant. The union also has to go to bat for loser teachers and there has been much written lately (see the April '09 L.A. Times series "Failure Gets a Pass") about how nearly impossible it is to get rid of even a dangerous teacher. Most charter school teachers work without the protection of a union. It makes me sad that good teachers are therefore more vulnerable to being treated unfairly and underpaid but the counterpoint is that it is easier to remove someone who’s unfit.

The new state budget only bodes to make things worse. I speak with the director of the 826 tutoring program where I volunteer. He is a former high school teacher who is more than likely taking a big pay cut to try to level the field for kids whose parents can’t afford tutoring. He sighs that he spends most of his time fundraising and that they lack the resources to augment the youth and enthusiasm of the tutoring corps with workshops to build their actual teaching skills. He asks me how I think new tutors should be trained after I make a big fat case that they should be and I don’t know what to say. Most of the students I work with at 826 are Hispanic and this is a group that has been largely failed by U.S. educators. I reject the “you can do anything you believe in/feel good promotion” philosophy which hasn’t done anyone much good but the “no college-tainted oppression liberators need apply” doesn’t seem any more promising.

The problem seems overwhelming and I am not equipped to plug into an educational philosophy in the search for answers. The challenge to level the field becomes even more daunting in the face of the financial crisis. I will continue the daily rush hour pilgrimage to the charter school. I don’t know what I’d say to the new young tutors except maybe if you don’t desperately want your students to love what you are teaching with the same passion that you do, then you should try to change the world via a different venue. “Those who can’t, teach” is clichĂ© enough to have lost meaning but teaching is often regarded as something that anyone who has ever been taught in a classroom can do. A true aptitude for teaching is probably even rarer than a natural aptitude for athletics but good teachers are far less valued than good athletes. Perhaps it’s easier for the indifferent and lazy, indeed, those who can’t, to endure the dispiriting state of the educational system.

My penpal reports that the system has burned out a lot of the inmate population and many attend educational and vocational classes only to occupy space and earn credit towards parole. He writes about his fears for the future when he is released after twenty years of incarceration and the beacon of hope he has found in his classes with Mr. Koontz, his vocational program instructor. It seems inevitable, in the face of the current mess, that this program will be eliminated but he asks that I take a few minutes to speak on his behalf and write a letter asking to save his class and I ask you to do the same:
Office of Secretary-CDCR
Attn: Mr. Matt Cate
1515 S. Street South Building 5th Floor
Sacramento, CA 95811-7263

Re: Vocational Air conditioning and refrigeration
Instructor: Mr. Koontz
Unit 2 CCI-Tehachapi

My Marshall kids read me their first drafts of an essay about a peer’s life changing experience and my group’s results are not stellar but the topics, deportation, miscarriage, and father’s arrest are brave. One of the girls was particularly taken by last weeks reading, a girl’s description of her drug addict mother from an anthology of teen writing. I mention that I could tell that it affected her. Her first reaction is the embarrassment of how uncool it is for the old white lady to have decoded her a bit. Then, she looks me straight in the eye and smiles broadly in thanks for having noticed. Faced with thirty tenth graders lacking enthusiasm for writing, in the last period on a Friday afternoon, two weeks from the end of the year, Andy Molnar, the young teacher, and I suspect perhaps a college-tainted oppression liberator, is generous and energetic towards the task of coaxing writing from the unwilling. The kids like him and not just because he is young but because he consistently reminds them that their feelings and observations matter. He tells me proudly after class that some of the student writings from this assignment have moved him to tears. I tell him that he has done nothing short of changing these writer’s lives by giving them permission to express themselves so freely. He tells me that he received a layoff notice from the school district.

The Parents we Mean to Be (reviewed here yesterday at Amazon by Himself) by Richard Weissbourd-- I have pimped even to people who don’t have kids, cautions us not to try to remedy our own childhoods through our children. Looking at my kids and my role in their lives with this filter has preoccupied me. Himself reads the first fifty pages of the book and says that it makes some good points but complains that it is not enjoyable reading to which I respond, “duh,” as of course it would be much more pleasant to escape with a story than to have much of your core operating system challenged. Separating my own childhood from the rearing of my children leaves me feeling at sea. The more I learn the less I know but the essential truth to parenting and teaching is that both are best done with love and that is really hard to teach.


Cari said...

I think the hardest but ultimately the most effective way to approach teaching and parenting is to truly suspend judgement. We would all love our kids to be "Ivy Leagers", but we have to accept that not all offspring are willing or made for such directions. Sometimes trade schools are the best way to stimulate a student's interest in life/work skills, rather than the "blah blah blah" of a professor in a cavernous hall spewing pedantic wisdom beyond their ken. Please don't think me anti-higher education, (and please, I'm absolutely NOT referring to your own kids) but I honestly don't think college is for everyone, especially high-school graduates with gnat-like attention spans.

FionnchĂș said...

You told me what readers may not otherwise note about that hard-to-align chart of scores by ethnicity & income: the poorest Asians do better than the richest blacks. Can this be reduced to a simple shrug to cultural patterns and family traits when so many of the achievers share probably the same broken families and local dysfunctions of Oakland? Fascinating points to ponder.

Since I labor at what long has been stigmatized or distinguished as a trade school by its roots, notwithstanding its current corporate ambitions or contradictions to "incorporate" a university model, I agree with Cari-- the more I teach college (even at the low level of many of my students from said impoverished, inner-city upbringings), the more I think that even our version of higher education in its costs exceeds the benefits for many who'd be better off working, at least until they're older. They may regret waiting, but they may appreciate the degree more if they do gain more experience in the workplace first; my best students often come from the military.

Heresy, but as an adult educator (with a genyoowine credential as well as that hidebound Ph.D.), I'd advise many students to pause after high school; they'll appreciate their educaction more and bring more to it later on. And, they'll gain the motivation to do better that's often lacking with immaturity and parental pressure. Of course, when they're older, they're impelled in part by their own pressure instead! xxx me