The great whine fest is underway at school. Mostly seniors, but a lot of juniors, simply whining that anything substantive is expected of them. It’s less funny each year, I have to admit. And though from the seniors, I rather expect it and joke with them about it, the juniors are far less….humorous.
16 or 17 years old and a month left of school with one more full year to go. Rather than consider the best way to finish the year with a sparkle, or even a dull glow, the juniors–a good swath of them–are busy trying to figure out, not so much how they can get out of work, for that would require their diligent participation. No, they’re more interested in complaining that they have any work to do at all.
So, I give them more. It’s my subtle way of shutting them up–or down, or something. The more they whine, the more I add to the workload. I figure one year, a group might be smart enough to figure this out.
It’s interesting to me to listen to the whole education debate, primarily because that debate that goes on in the media with some very thoughtful people (and admittedly some real cretins), isn’t a real debate at all. Real debates feature topics that are, well, real. And the debate about public education in America isn’t really a debate. Why? Well, I’m glad you asked.
First off, credit has to be given to the Federal government and its infinite wisdom. Under President George W. Bush (and by the way, I’m under no illusions here and you shouldn’t be either. If Barack Obama disagreed, he’d do something about it. He hasn’t. Case closed), the No Child Left Behind act was passed, or NCLB. Of course, my friend John, a consummate musician and fine music educator, refers to it as No Child Left in Band. And that’s a fine point. NCLB is interested in two things–reading and math. That’s pretty much it. And it’s only interested in those two things as far as it can measure them in metrics it can translate into arcane little numbers known as the Academic Performance Index or A.P.I. By the way, whenever people mention merit pay, I bring this up. If we’re using “the tests” as a way to measure merit pay, how are we going to measure the merit of the Art teacher, the music teacher, the shop teacher, the P.E. teacher? Or do we plan to eliminate those programs? And, as a parent, do you really think that school should be about reading and arithmetic? There is no more writing–at least not much. Why? Because multiple choice tests can’t measure it.
Occasionally, I’ll have a conversation with a parent who doesn’t work in schools and they’ll talk about how their school’s A.P.I. is high, so they’re glad. I ask, “what is an A.P.I.? What’s it mean?” Their reply is usually, “It’s an Academic Perfor…”
I interrupt. “Yeah, academic performance index. I know what it’s called. What does it mean?”
To save you time, allow me to cut to the chase. They don’t know. Why don’t they know? I’m glad you asked.
They don’t know because the A.P.I. is based essentially on test scores, demographics, overall G.P.A.’s (grade point averages) and assorted other claptrap. In other words, the number says something rather vague about whether or not you live in a neighborhood where parents can afford to be involved in their child’s education or where they cannot. And, to be fair–in some cases, parents simply choose not to be involved in their child’s education.
You can go around the country and for the most part, you won’t find a school with a high A.P.I. where there is, say, a good deal of poverty or a good deal of illegal immigration. You won’t find that because, as a teacher who wrote into our local paper, and the one I write for, the other day said, if teachers are really the problem in education, there is an easy way to find out. Simply take, for example, all the teachers at the high school where I teach, in a relatively affluent community in Ventura County–and swap them with the teachers at a school over in a city that isn’t so affluent, where the A.P.I. is lower. What you will find is that the A.P.I. score largely will not change in any significant way. Why? I’m glad you asked. Because with a few notable exceptions, it’s not the teachers that cause the low test scores. It’s a messy amalgam of the kids themselves and the poorly written, wholly inappropriate tests.
If parents value education at home and hold their children accountable (Gasp! He used that word–and he meant to hold someone else accountable other than teachers!), the children will, again with a few notable exceptions, do very well. If they don’t, then the children won’t. And really, it’s that simple.
But politicians don’t do simple-I offer for your consideration the U.S. Post office, The Department of Motor Vehicles, the tax code and the new health care legislation as examples. Politicians do power. Power needs money to survive and the money is in the hands of teachers unions, administrators and school boards. The one message that I’ve gotten loud and clear–and that my colleagues have gotten, too is that we are expendable and un-necessary. Our jobs are transitory and if school-boards had their way, they’d get rid of the lot of us. Except when one of us does something that makes them look good.
Allow me an anecdote. Our school does a mandatory collaboration schedule. Twice a month, our departments gather together to “collaborate” for the purpose of sharing testing data and discussing how we can get our kids to do better on the tests. In fact, our whole school district created a monstrosity called “Benchmarks” (note: When they found out that we teachers refer to the Benchmarks as BM’s, they changed the name to D.W.A.’s or District Wide Assessments). The purpose of the Benchmark, a test given quarterly to freshman, sophomores and juniors in math, science, social studies and English, is to assess how well our students will do on the State test called the Star. Yes, you got it–the district gives quarterly tests for the purpose of finding out how our kids will do on the test. We imagine that soon, there will be a pre-Benchmark to assess how kids will do on the Benchmark to assess how they’ll do on the Star test.
Our administrators (and this goes for the lot of them across the U.S.) are so married to this way of doing things, that they have mantras: “Data drives instruction.” “What do the test scores tell us?” “Mine the data, and we’ll know what to do.” But, it reminds me of the movie The Hunt for Red October. The big Soviet Missile submarine is diving into an underwater canyon and one of the officers is nervous. His colleague, the navigator, without looking up from his charts and watch, says, “Stop pissing, Yuri. Give me a map and a stopwatch and I could fly the Alps blindfolded.” Yuri replies, “if the map is accurate enough.” Replace the word “map” with the word “data” and you have my point.
Yesterday, we were to have one such collaboration. One of our teachers arrived early, around 6:30 A.M. to do a few things before the meeting at 6:50 A.M. 11 of her Advanced Placement students showed up to her room. They were preparing to take their Advanced Placement Chemistry tests that day, but the Advanced Placement English test was tomorrow. Could she spare a bit of time to go over some things with them before they took it? Being the good soul she is, she said she would and she called down to the Dept. Chair and told her.
The Dept. chair didn’t like it one bit–neither did the administrators. They told her that she was part of the department and that she needed to be at the meeting. She told them to go pound sand. Well, OK, she didn’t-but that’s what she meant. She said simply that her students need to come first and she was going to help them. As far as I know, there have been no negative repercussions. Yet.
But there you have, in a nutshell, the whole problem–data and test scores are more important than the students. I ask you as parents–if your child goes to a school like this, do you want the teacher to help the kids, or to go to a meeting to discuss test scores?
And really, can I do anything to change it? No. No I can’t. I have a job and it is made clear to me everyday, as I said, that I’m expendable. I actually like our principal and Assistant Principals just fine. I know they answer to the board and have to do their jobs. And they work at telling us they’re grateful for what we do. But, the actions taken by the district are much louder than the words–and the actions say simply, “do what we tell you to do…” Nevermind that most of us in the classroom have the same credentials–or more–than those who “drive the instruction.”
So, the debate surrounding education–about the evil teachers and how they’re failing our kids–is just getting tiresome and, like so many other things in the media, it isn’t true. Are there bad teachers? Yes. Show me a profession without a few bad apples, please. But teachers are some of the hardest working, most dedicated folks I know. And I do know–because I am one and I’m proud of it. I’ve worked hard at it and I like doing it.
But, truly, if you ask me–and I know you haven’t, the whole fargin’ system needs an enema. And make it a double espresso.