Saturday, June 24, 2006

Why Are Some Schools So Bad?

As someone who believes in public education, I find these two articles--one which talks about the dropout rate in New York City, and the other which talks about the Newark public school system--very depressing. According to the first article, between 50 and 65 percent of the kids who go to New York City public schools don't graduate. The article about Newark doesn't make it sound like things are any better there, and it implies that kids can get a great education if they leave the system and go to small Catholic schools. In fact, this article focuses on a Catholic school that has been very successful working with kids who do not exactly come from well-to-do families:

ON the day before graduation at Our Lady of Good Counsel High School here, Ruth Ameiorsano walked with her students into the parish church next door for a Mass of Thanksgiving. As the school's sole guidance counselor, Ms. Ameiorsano had particular reason for gratitude. Every one of her 35 seniors had been accepted to college, the third year in a row she had posted a perfect record.

Success had not come easily, not in a place with all the troubles and snares of Newark. Ms. Ameiorsano had compiled transcripts and assembled health records. She had taught SAT prep classes and edited application essays. From those essays, she knew the lives these teenagers led. One girl had seen her cousin shot dead in a drive-by attack. Another recalled an uncle, addicted to heroin, passing out on the family couch.

No matter how supportive one is of public schools, it would be difficult to tell people who cared about their own kids' education to keep sending them to the public schools discussed in these articles. These are situations in which it would be hard to argue against having a voucher system. I hate to say that because if these schools lose their motivated students, they will never be able to improve to the point where they can be called "good schools". But I also don't want to see kids, who really want an education, sacrificed for a theory that these schools might be able to get better.

But why are these public schools so bad, when the private schools working with kids from the same area are able to be so good? I have never worked in an urban school district, but I am going to give my guess. Anyone out there who knows more about these situations than I do should feel free to tell me if I'm hot, cold, or somewhere in between. And please don't get angry at me for drawing conclusions about a situation for which I have no first hand experience. Heck, public education critics and policy-makers do it all the time!

The schools in these areas have a lot of kids coming from less than ideal neighborhoods and homes. I have no doubt that some of these kids do want to learn and be successful. Most of these kids with good attitudes probably come from families who, despite living under difficult conditions, make the education of their children a priority. Others might have some other adult role model who has pushed them in this direction, and still others might have this positive attitude simply because of something within themselves. But because of the conditions they are growing up in, there would also be a much larger than average number of kids going to these schools who don't see education as having much meaning in their lives. Their effort might be minimal, and their behavior might be awful.

I have argued before that if there are too many apathetic and disruptive kids in a classroom, that learning becomes almost impossible. I suspect teachers in inner-city schools see this situation a lot. The kids fall farther and farther behind, and some of the kids who were motivated probably begin to adopt the ways of kids who don't care. Some teachers who began by wanting to make a difference probably find that nothing seems to work, so they get frustrated and eventually quit trying as hard as they should. Some schools like these also probably have some teachers who weren't that great in the first place, and are there only because they couldn't get a job anywhere else. The result: lousy schools with miserable scores on tests and miserable graduation rates.

I suspect the inner-city kids who go to small Catholic schools, like the one discussed in the Newark article, do so well because so many of the kids are motivated, and they've been effectively separated from kids who aren't. Any parents who are willing to pay to send their kids to a school have obviously made their kids' education a priority. When you put kids from families like these together in the same classroom, should anyone be surprised that they're successful? I'm always exacerbated when I read about students who are successful, and the author expects readers to fall over from shock because the kids are black or from low-income families. If you put a motivated student in a classroom with other motivated students, I don't care what race the student is or who her parents are. This is a recipe for success, and if I can't help that child learn, then you'd better fire me in a hurry.

Assuming I am not completely off base in my analysis of the situation in inner-cities, I have these questions: Do we have to pull kids out of the public school system in order to create a decent learning environment for them? Can't we find a way to put motivated kids with other motivated kids--or at least separate them from kids who can ruin their educations--within public schools?

DCS, there's that darned recurring theme again! :)



10 Comments:

Blogger DCS said...

I saw the NYT story, too. Sadly, I was not surprised by the report.

Yesterday, even though I posted some lengthy comments, I spared you a sampling of my own experiences in education - as a parent, as an education reporter, and as someone who has worked for an agency that lobbied on behalf of public education - some 70 school districts that are urban, suburban, affluent, low-income, and rural. I'm also someone who looks beyond the obvious.

This topic - "Why Are Some Schools So Bad?" - evokes my own experiences, first-hand observations, and emotions.

Without question, schools need to approach things differently when it comes to creating a nurturing environment in the classroom, one that is conducive to learning.

In my humble opinion, here are some of the reasons some schools fail:

1. Lack of strong instructional leadership at the top

2. In-fighting among school board members

3. Failure to appropriate enough financial resources to schools

4. Low expectations of students, which begins at the superintendent and school board level, and trickles down to schools

5. Failure of school districts to offer curriculum that students need to help them grow academically. Believe it or not, I've seen districts that do not offer calculus or pre-calculus, physics, AP classes - classes that will challenge and engage capable students and adequately prepare them for the workforce or postsecondary education.

6. Lack of cultural literacy. Lack of knowledge among administrators and teachers in getting to know the culture of the population they serve. This could happen for two reasons - ignorance or arrogance.

7. Racism and internalized racism.
I think everyone knows what I mean when I say racism, whether they agree with me or not. Internalized racism is when people of color (black people, for instance) internalize the lies they have heard from whites. Examples: Black kids can't or won't learn; black kids and parents don't care about education; black students aren't ready for AP classes; black students don't have the capability for tackling high-level science and technology courses; there are valid reasons for suspending black students at twice the rate as white students for the same offense.

8. Systematic biases in school policies

9. Failure by superintendents, school administrators and teachers to understand the importance of tying everything back to the kids.

9. Failure to understand the importance being results-driven, whether it's in the classroom, the board room, or in the district's business practices.

10. Failure by central offices and school boards to have proper infrastructure in place to fully support teachers.

11. School board members who put their personal and political agendas ahead of what's best for the district.

12. Fear by educators to move outside of their comfort zones.

13. Failure to understand what the achievement gap looks like and its ramifications. Failure to understand that the achievement gap is alive and well everywhere - in suburban school districts as well as inner city ones.

14. Lack of efforts to pursue strong, ongoing parent engagement. Some educators see parents as people they have to put up with and forget that they are stakeholders. Yes, I know some parents can be a pain in the behind, but one must remember that our parents pay teachers' salaries.

If adults would start addressing these issues first, they will find that incidences of disruptive behavior would drop significantly.

Kids need to feel that they are valued and respected. So do parents. Bottom line: If you give respect, you'll get respect.

6/24/2006 10:36 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

DCS, I promise that my next post will be more uplifting. (Please don't respond by saying, "It's about time!")

6/24/2006 2:02 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

6/24/2006 2:02 PM  
Blogger DCS said...

Uplifting?? I thought this was the uplifting post. :-)

I keep coming back here because I like your site and your style.
However, somehow I seem to forget the concept of writing concisely when I come here!

If you've done anything, you've inspired me to pursue some serious writing on my own about my own experiences. Thank you for that.
But I may have to write a novel because no one would believe many of the things I've experienced.

Have a great weekend. By by the way, I've discovered that your blog is now an RSS feed, so I have a subscription now. Good show!

6/24/2006 4:58 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

DCS, I couldn't have done it without you, and I can't wait to read your book. After your book comes out, I'll start thinking about that research project you assigned.

6/24/2006 6:38 PM  
Blogger DCS said...

Oh, no! You're not going to weasel yourself out of research. LOL (Besides, only God knows when I'd write the book.)

Part of your project could be gathering anecdotes like this one.

6/26/2006 5:42 AM  
Anonymous Tim Fredrick's ELA Teaching Blog said...

As a teacher in an urban environment, I can tell you it has less to do with the students than with the adults in the building. Yes, my students have a lot of struggles and hurdles in their way. But, a good school can help students overcome those hurdles and succeed. It is the adults in the building that do that. One reason urban school systems may really struggle is that there is a large demand for good teachers and administrators and a small supply. Therefore, there is more of a chance that substandard educators create substandard school environments where kids don't succeed and are unruly which does not attract successful educators to teach there and so on and so forth.

6/27/2006 4:43 PM  
Anonymous CPG said...

Dennis, I believe that you were spot on with your conclusion that a certain amount of highly unmotivated students can in effect sabotage a learning environment. My first five years of teaching were spent in a Catholic school, located in an area that was equally as low-income, dangerous, gang-infested, etc. (if not more so!) as either of the two public schools that I have taught at in recent years. In the Catholic school, the general attitude towards learning was certainly much better. In the public schools, the degree of success that I am able to achieve each year is largely determined by the degree to which I am able to neutralize the negative effect of those who possess little desire to learn while nurturing students who are in fact motivated to learn.

Even after three years, I am amazed (and sometimes enraged!) by the complete lack of motivation displayed by certain students. It is evident that they have cruised through years of schooling without ever being exposed to the sense of curiosity and wonder that accompanies true learning. I know many teachers in the public schools who have become completely accustomed to this sense of apathy and I realize how lucky I am to have spent my formative years as a teacher outside of the public education system.

It is certainly unjust that many parents have no other choice but to send their students into learning environment in which too little learning actually takes place. Schools that are able to maintain a strong sense of discipline are able to fare much better than those (and now there are far too many) that do not uphold high expectations of behavior. Public school systems prefer to ignore the growing problem of discipline in urban schools because they fear the negative publicity. The problem is only compounding itself. In many areas of the country, it has already had disastrous consequences.

When the adults in a school unite, support each other, and maintain high expectations for academics and behavior, the school thrives. Too often in failing schools, principals lack the wherewithal or the integrity to back up their teachers who are struggling to maintain high standards. Understandably, these teachers (usually some of the best ones) seek jobs where their best efforts will be recognized instead of thwarted.

This growing problem with discipline in schools manifests itself more clearly in urban schools where larger portions of the students lack proper discipline and structure in their homes. Administrators and teachers in urban schools need to realize the need to provide consistency and structure for the students. The success of their schools depend on it.

6/29/2008 3:23 PM  
Anonymous Larry said...

I am glad CPG finally got to the crux of the problem: DISCIPLINE and the lack thereof in public schools nationwide. I am not an educator, other than Sunday school, but I hear first-hand accounts of the near impossible learning atmosphere from a good friend teaching in a Baltimore public school. Having gone to a Catholic grade school, then a public high school in the 1980's, I personally experienced beneficial discipline in private school followed by minor chaos in a suburban public school in Pittsburgh. The significant factor found in one and missing from the other: discipline. My teacher friend tells me unbelievable stories of six year old students (first graders) literally laughing in the face of teachers who scold them. The systems only legal form of 'punishment' is giving students a time-out or detention for a few days where they probably play videos games at home. It is therefore not unimaginable that twelve years from now some of these students will laugh and mock the laws of society exactly as they laugh and mock the teachers in charge of them now. Neither is there any spiritual discipline: no simple corporate prayer, no acknowledgment of God as clearly stated in our country's founding documents, and most recently not even a pledge of allegiance because of two simple words 'under God.' My friend said they now recite some made-up school mantra every morning instead of the pledge. As an engineer I like to think I can at least identify problems and find solutions. The problem: remove God and laws from any 'system' and the result is chaos and destruction. This princicple is true whether talking about a bridge built around the laws of gravity, an individual required to function within the laws of society, or an educational system that delivers no real consequences to rebellious students. Order and favorable conditions mandate obedience to laws and designs, whether voluntary or forced. I can 'force' a bridge design to obey the laws of gravity because it has no freewill. Educators cannot force kids to obey because students have freewill. Only for the worse, the ACLU has succeeded in seeing to it that students will not receive any real physical consequence to disobedience, unless the educator wants to lose their license and never teach again. Problem identified. The solution: since man (i.e. the human race) has a propensity for rebellion, the solution is simple and can be found in God's manual of life: "Spare the rod, spoil the child." "True wisdom begins with a fear of the Lord." "A fool despises instruction." "To give prudence to the simple...a wise man will hear and increase learning." Or read the 'New England Primer,' the first public school textbook used in America for over 200 years---
O wait, my bad. These are words of truth from the Bible. I forgot: our public education leaders want nothing to do with wisdom from the Almighty. Good luck 'strategizing' your own solution, because there is no other.

11/22/2008 8:27 AM  
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