"A teacher affects eternity, he can never tell where his influence stops." Henry Brooks Adams

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Why Don't Liberals Really Like Poor Children?

First of all, I am a liberal--so this post is following common societal mores for truth telling--you are allowed to criticize your own group. Here is what is bugging me lately about people who call themselves liberals: they don't REALLY like poor kids. Oh, they like them in theory, they don't mind tax money being spent to help them, they believe that the children deserve a good education, they just don't want poor children sitting next to their kids in a public school. Oh its OK if there are some really interesting poor families in the school: in other words families with compelling/heartrending up from nothing stories (up being the operative word), or--even better--newly arrived immigrant families with an interesting language or cultural perspective to contribute to the school. That way, they can pat themselves on the back about diversity while not being made uncomfortable by the reality of true poverty. The children they really do not want to have to deal with on a daily basis are the children of entrenched, generational poverty that live very close to their own neighborhoods. THOSE children might have problems, THOSE children might come to school hungry or not have stable housing, THOSE children might cause their children to ask uncomfortable questions. Being poor does not make you a bad parent any more than being wealthy makes you a good one--but being poor probably makes it harder to do everything that good parenting requires. And it definitely makes you more tired.
Liberal parents will say they make many herculean efforts to keep their kids out of certain Philadelphia neighborhood schools (applying to the nominal public schools called charters or trying to transfer to a public school in a high socioeconomic status neighborhood) because they are searching out the best possible education for their children. In many ways that is true. But the truth is that liberals are like everybody else--they are most comfortable with their own kind. If you are a middle class liberal it is really very comfortable to talk to other parents in the schoolyard if your main topic of conversation can be which $500.00 stroller to buy, which house cleaner is the best, or which art/dance/sport class to enroll your kid in. If, however, you are faced with having to relate to a parent who is rushing between two low-wage jobs and may not make rent--well, that might be awkward. And, you might be revealed NOT to be the wonderful, egalitarian, liberal that you thought you were.
The very best, most productive thing that middle-class liberal parents (I'm not criticizing conservatives here because they don't tend to be disingenuous about their educational motives) can do for poor children is to allow their own children to attend school with them! All schools would be improved by the presence of a really diverse student and parent population, society would be improved because children would learn how to move gracefully in many kinds of circles from a young age, and--because a rising tide lifts all boats--I don't believe that any children (liberal middle to high SES or not) would lose out educationally or socially by this arrangement. Perhaps, just maybe, this could put our society on the road to a truly meaningful education for all.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

"P" is for Parents and Powerful

One of the things that can drive teachers crazy is that we are NEVER permitted to mention the "P" Word. When we are in meetings talking about how to improve things in schools and for students, the "P" word is not allowed to be spoken. What, you might ask, is the dreaded "P" word? Well, it is "PARENTS". Parents, we have all been told, are their child's first teachers. Parents are the ones who spend the most time with their children before they go to school, and parents are the ones who transmit (either obviously or implicitly) their attitudes towards school and education to their offspring. Every classroom teacher knows that if you need to do some special or extra work with a student, you must get a parent on your side before it can happen. However, school administrators and government officials who deal with education are extremely reluctant to call some parents out on their neglectful behavior. If a child does not come to school, or comes to kindergarten woefully ill-prepared, or is tired and/or hungry everyday, WHO is responsible for that?? Well, logic would tell you it is the parents, but school districts will tell you that the school (meaning teachers) MUST find a way to overcome all this and make sure the child becomes proficient or advanced in all subjects.
What would happen if we told the truth to parents? What would happen if we said, "You are the single most powerful person in your child's life. Nothing I do can work without your support."? Would parents step up, own their power, and use it to propel their children towards success? I think they would. I hope they would. We know that some parents have always done this. This kind of parental involvement and power does not always tie into to socio-economic status, we have all known poor parents who make sure their children excel in school and wealthy parents who are quite neglectful. However, too often, poorer schools are the schools that lack sufficient parental involvement. There are many reasons for this, but maybe we need to stop listing the reasons, and just ask parents to accept their power. Being a parent is the most important job we will ever do, and we all must realize that it is critical for our children that parents own up to their influence and make sure their children take advantage of all school opportunities open to them.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Turnaround or Boondoggle??

Once again, the School District of Philadelphia seems ready to turn over some of its most struggling schools to outside managers. Will this work? Have we learned NOTHING from past experience? Last time we gave a bunch of schools to Educational Management Organizations (EMOs), the results were less than inspiring. In fact, the results were so bad that most of the schools were returned to the management of the district. Here is what the School District's website says about the new "Renaissance Schools":
There are three major components of the Renaissance Schools initiative:
1) identifying chronically low-performing District schools that are not likely to achieve dramatic improvements without transformative change, 2) identifying individuals and organizations that are capable and prepared to turnaround around failing schools in Philadelphia, and 3) empowering school communities to play an active role in the turnaround and ongoing support of their school. The District believes that these components must be implemented with rigor and transparency in order to create an effective and lasting process for turning around failing schools in Philadelphia.

SUPPOSEDLY, these EMOs and Charters will have to retain ALL the children currently in the school. But will they really do this? What about parents who want to opt out--where will their children be sent? Instead of bringing in outside managers, why not have a series of thoughtful, exploratory meetings with the current staff and parents? They are the ones who intimately know the school and its students--and believe me--they probably have plenty of useful ideas about how to improve the schools.
Many EMOs and charters come in with many preconceived ideas and cookie-cutter plans that will not fit every school and student. The way they traditionally deal with this is to turf out the kids and families that do not get with the program. The district says they will not do that this time, but can we trust them? Probably not. Will EMOs and Charters be required to treat special education students fairly and legally? I am not the only one worried about this--The Education Law Center's Len Rieser blogged about his concerns on the Philadelphia School Notebook's site: http://www.thenotebook.org/blog/102243/something-can-be-said-school-districts
EVERYONE concerned about children and schools should be worried about how the Renaissance Schools will be doled out. Will they go to Arlene's friends? The SRC members political cronies? Will we really see "rigor and transparency" in this process?
I do not teach at either a Renaissance eligible or alert school, but I am concerned about the students who attend them and the staff who work at them. I hope all these students are not simply handed over to money-making companies to experiment on.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

More Scripts

My last post had an interesting comment from Sandy, a Title I reading teacher. They, too, are under lots of pressure to use scripted programs because they must justify the expenditure of federal funds to help kids read. "Research-based" is the new buzzword--but what does it really mean? Just like with drug and medical research, it matters WHO is sponsoring the studies. Can we really believe in a study that is sponsored and paid for by the publishing company that stands to gain millions from the sale of the program being researched? The common sense answer is no, but school districts seem to be suckers for these kinds of sales pitches. In Philly, and maybe in other places too, teachers often wonder if the programs are being selected because the sales people have some kind of "in" with the district. Are the people in charge buying programs (spending taxpayers' money)from their friends, relatives, former colleagues??? I know that this would surprise NO ONE in Philadelphia if it turned out to be true! How can the process be made more transparent? How can teachers become a part of the process, that after all, should be about helping our students--not lining the pockets of publishing companies?

Monday, February 8, 2010


I've tried to give it my best effort, truly I have. But it all came to a head for me one day last week when one of my students (an engaging, interesting 8th grader) said to me, "Mrs. L., why are they doing this to us?" The "this" she was talking about was the "Corrective" reading and math programs that many School District of Philadelphia schools are now forced to use. Philadelphia Magazine reported inaccurately last month that the corrective programs are used in after school remedial programs. The truth is that the "Empowerment Schools" must use these programs for EVERY STUDENT two periods per day. That is 90 minutes of scripted, rote programs, and many students are feeling punished by it! My student asked "what did we do to deserve this, are we that horrible?", and she is not really a drama queen--she truly feels that these two programs (corrective reading and math) are sucking much of the creativity and interest out of her day. My student--an 8th grader from a semi-poor neighborhood in North Philly--could clearly see what the PhD in charge of the district apparently cannot: these programs are not helping her learn, or engaging her interest, or helping her with higher order thinking skills that she will need to fulfill her life goals. When I had this student for social studies last year, she participated enthusiastically in discussions about the problems of disease and colonialism in Africa! This sort of teaching--which students actually find engaging--is being swept aside for robotic scripted programs that most students find mind-numbing.
For years, the district has been telling teachers we need to engage students and differentiate instruction. All of that is true--kids learn better when they are interested, and not every kid learns the same way! So, what are we doing now? Pushing every kid into a scripted program! As usual with large corporate-type entities, the District is talking out of both sides of their collective mouth! We need highly-qualified, innovated, committed, dedicated teachers. Yes we do! And we have many! However, highly-qualified, innovative, committed, dedicated teachers DO NOT want to read from scripts. We know how to teach, we know how to remediate, we know how to raise test scores! LET US DO IT!

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Other Stuff

Many teachers know that the hardest part of their job is "the other stuff". By that we mean everything that does not have directly to do with instruction and teaching, but has a HUGE, practically incalculable amount to do with whether our students are ready to learn. How can kids be expected to learn well and receptively when they are tired or hungry, or do not know what or who will greet them when they go home that day? Even if school is the best, safest place that they will be that day (and for many kids it is), how can they learn when the rest of life is so upsetting and unsettled? Today, a great teacher at my school saw one of her former students "steaming" through the halls upset and angry. She knew that this child probably was upset because of an unhappy and tenuous home situation--but the kid could not cope with school right now. My friend was able to take the child aside, calm her down and make her feel a little better for the moment. The child went back to her class ready to learn--for the moment. This is an everyday occurrence for many teachers, but it is really only a salve for the underlying problem. Kids need stability, kids need love--until they get that, they cannot fulfill their potential. This costs society in many ways, and for many years--but what can all of us do about it?