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! :)