What Parents Don’t Understand. . .

I really worry about public education, y'all.  I honestly don't believe that we'll ever be able to make efficient and effective decisions about the direction that schools should take primarily because everyone in the general public thinks they know what it takes to serve our students. 

That false transparency—the assumption that nonprofessionals truly understand the challenges faced by public schools because of their own experiences as parents and/or students—results in the kind of thinking I found in the comment section of this article debating the future of schools in my own county.

Here's a sample of a commonly held misconception about education.  I've bolded the thinking that has me the most concerned:

Sounds like Wake county education board has got a lot of people stirred up. I for one think busing is a waste of money when it is done for the sake of integration which this is all about. If all schools get the same monies (so much per student) and the teachers all meet the same qualifications education quality should be the same everywhere. If a student wants to learn they have the opportunity…Schools are for education not social reform.

Posted by dohickey, December 15, 2009

No offense to Mr(s). Dohickey, but to believe that distributing resources equally to schools serving affluent students—who have enrichment experiences beyond school and access to the tools that make learning easier—and schools serving students who live in poverty will result in the same outcomes borders on the illogical!

The fact of the matter is that students living in poverty have a set of unique challenges that have to be addressed before learning can even take place.  Some are homeless and are more concerned about finding their next meal than the are in memorizing Moh's scale of hardness.  Others have to set their homework aside in order to take care of younger siblings while moms and dads work second and third jobs.  Still more live in unsafe neighborhoods where gang violence can be all-consuming. 

And while I agree that schools shouldn't be a tool for social reform, teachers who work in high poverty schools have to sift through social wreckage before they can effectively teach.  Even in the most challenging school that I've ever worked—where a whopping 30% of my students came from disadvantaged homes—the work was difficult. 

Students who were so far behind in the curriculum that they couldn't keep up with basic tasks slowed down instruction for everyone.  Scrounging for pencils, pens and backpacks for the kids in my class became a part time job.  I spent hours trying to get my students help from school resource officers and guidance counselors.  I felt like I was teaching with one hand tied behind my back—and I know that my students were definitely at a disadvantage when compared to the students in the suburban school where I teach today.

Need more proof that students who live in poverty need more than their "fair share" of a community's resources in order to be able to succeed?  Then check out this blog post that I wrote a few years ago, sharing the first person account of a teacher working in a high poverty building or poke through this policy document, where North Carolina's most accomplished teachers reflect on what it will take to recruit teachers to high poverty buildings. 

The problem is that most Mr(s). Dohickies won't ever truly work to understand what it takes for schools to succeed.  Instead, they'll throw pot-shots from the peanut gallery based on their own flawed understandings of how schools work. 

And that's why teachers need to step forward and lead.  Until we raise our voices and paint accurate pictures of what life is really like in our classrooms, we'll be forced to wrestle with an underinformed populus who advocates for underinformed policies. 

Talk about a recipie for disaster. 

9 comments

  1. K. Borden

    Mr. Ferriter:
    The report attributing the vast majority of reassignments to growth issues must be read with a understanding of the decisions along the way that exasperated problems. Failures to bank land in the 90’s when growth predictions indicated it would be a wise use of bond funds, the failure of a bond initiative, repeatedly opting for lower bond initiatives than needed, and choosing to renovate schools when the cost of new construction with more capacity would be comparable.
    Even watershed issues played a hand, with one example where they didn’t expand an existing campus in a high growth area because of environmental concerns, but ultimately allowed the construction of a subdivision on the adjacent land and a gas station just down the road. How about when builders offered to construct schools and donate land, but were rejected because the stipulation that the schools be populated by the developments under construction met with rejection because of healthy schools policy?
    The opening of a new school once was a source of community pride to be celebrated. In Wake County, it is not uncommon to find parents lobby against assignment to newly constructed schools in favor of older facilities.
    I once sat in on a work session for the school board where the statement was made that despite existing seats in at one school, the opt out option to another with crowding issues would be wiser because the opt out choices for parents could not be made too “appealing”. The result was to increase overcrowding issues at one school while allowing seats to remain unutilized at another.
    School construction takes time, and when a new school opens with temporary classroom trailers moved on site the first year, they become vivid visual illustrations of the lack of effective planning.
    Do you ever wonder if all the students sitting today in the charter schools (which must pay their own capital costs) were to suddenly be injected into the WCPSS, where they might sit? And yet the stubborn refusal to ask the state to allow an expansion on the charter limits continued, while requests for waivers of class size restrictions to the state proliferated. What exactly is going to happen now that the state rejected the 300 requests recently made?
    So while it is true that it is possible to label up to 80% of the reassignments made over recent years to growth issues, the label would be just as informative as some of those used to classify students.
    What we have is a fine mess.
    I hope your first holidays as a parent are at least as magical as the ones I have been privileged to enjoy.

  2. Bill Ferriter

    K. Borden wrote:
    When we admit some students will need more resources to unlock their capabilities than others, the solutions that address those needs may just emerge. As long as they are buried in “healthy schools” they will not.
    This is definitely a point that we agree on, K—and if a return to neighborhood schools results in a commitment to invest more resources into students that need more support in order to succeed, then the recent school board elections will be a success, indeed.
    I’ve got my doubts, though. I just can’t imagine budgets allowing for any additional investments unless we are willing as a community to reallocate what we already have in new ways.
    That’s a proposition that I don’t think many people will buy in to at all—as evidenced by Dohickey’s position in the comment I cite above.
    One thing’s for sure: If our district shifts to a neighborhood school model, there will be buildings where 90+% of the students live in poverty, and without additional investments, the passing rates of their students will be shocking, indeed.
    Maybe that will be the shock that it takes to move people to action.
    K also wrote:
    They should also know that there are far too many students have been reassigned three times in five years in order to maintain “healthy schools”.
    This is a sticking point for me, K—and an area where our system has done a really poor job communicating with the broader community.
    Statistically speaking, the VAST majority of the redistricting in our county has had nothing to do with diversity in the past 5-10 years. Instead, the most common reason students have been moved is to fill new schools or to backfill existing schools after students are moved to new buildings. Growth has been the driver for redistricting.
    While I can’t put my hands on the report right now, there is a county-wide document that shows this—and the evidence is dramatic. Something like 80% of the redistricting decisions are growth related—and even crazier, an equally high percentage of the students moved in our recent years of redistricting were actually moved to schools CLOSER to their homes.
    That doesn’t mean that students aren’t moved for the sake of diversity—they are. But the conversation in our county makes it seem like diversity is the primary reason for redistricting and that is simply not true.
    My greatest regret/frustration is that these facts almost never appear in news articles covering our county because I think they would make the tenor of the conversations about redistricting far, far more civil.
    I’ll try to get my hands on the report and post it in the next few weeks/month. I’m not sure how active I’ll be—or the district people I’ll need to contact will be—during the holiday week.
    By the way, have a great holiday with your family! I’m thankful for your continued pushes here on the Radical. You make me think.
    Bill

  3. K. Borden

    Mr. Ferriter:
    You recognize the difference in a “healthy school” with 39% F&R and a “healthy school” with 9% F&R is huge. Both fall under the 40% to be considered “healthy”. One of the worst features of the policy, was that while it was being widely acclaimed, many children in the system a decade later were continuing to attend schools with well over 60% (or more) F&R.
    Readers to your blog may or may not understand that for the last decade the WCPSS have had the power to issue mandatory assignments and use bussing to distribute the county’s student population. A decade later, the disparities noted above continue.
    Readers should know that in Wake County you don’t live in a neighborhood, you live in a node subject to reassignment to any school in the system from one year to the next . They should also know that there are far too many students have been reassigned three times in five years in order to maintain “healthy schools”.
    Some teachers have liked the policy. They know the “honey pot” schools, vie for jobs there and then stay. Some have found it very disabling. They will begin to make progress with a student bringing together the resources needed and find that the student has been reassigned the next year. The transient nature of the populations would present this issue regardless of the policy, but the policy compounds the problem by promoting more transitions.
    My last question and answer is at the heart of the issue. If the quick and simple belief prevails that “every child is as capable of learning as every other child”, then a policy that merely shuffles students about to create “healthy schools” will continue. Untapped, unutilized capability serves no one well. The solutions which may tap and put to use the capabilities of one child, may be the obstacles of another. The modifiers “quick” and “simple” were important components of the answer.
    You said the same thing in a different way, “we’re also going to need to invest heavily in the schools serving the most challenging student populations—-and that is going to force some pretty difficult decisions, too.” Right now, we invest no more in them, we just redistribute them (quick and simple). When we admit some students will need more resources to unlock their capabilities than others, the solutions that address those needs may just emerge. As long as they are buried in “healthy schools” they will not.
    We agree. Tough decisions have long been needed. We may not agree that some candor and honesty needs to be brought forth in the discussions. We will never get to providing more funding for targeted programs and interventions as long as we simply tout that all children are as capable of learning as others. Why fund something more that can be solved by simply moving students to where the things that serve others well are? When we admit that differences exist in what is needed, then we can finally begin to address how to meet the goals.

  4. Bill Ferriter

    K. Borden wrote:
    Will parents opt to send their children to a school where the first order of business must be to face those unique challenges? Given the choice, probably not. Will teachers seek to teach at those schools? Not enough. Can equal funding be spent on every student and equal outcomes result?
    These are all good points, K…and the attempts that our new school board take to answer them will be really interesting to watch.
    While I’ve always been a supporter of our diversity policy primarily because I believe that it keeps schools from becoming places where accomplished teachers just won’t work, I believe there is always more than one path to the same endpoint.
    My initial thinking is that if we decide to pursue a neighborhood schools approach to educating children here in Wake County, we’re also going to need to invest heavily in the schools serving the most challenging student populations—-and that is going to force some pretty difficult decisions, too.
    Will we be able to find any additional monies in a tight budgetary time? Will we reduce funding to some schools in order to provide additional resources to others? Will we cut services completely in some buildings to offer additional services in other buildings?
    My guess is that all of these paths are going to meet with serious resistance—-which is going to require our community to take a public stand on just how important every child is. I’ve always been proud of our collective commitment to ensure healthy schools for everyone. I just hope we continue to walk in that direction, regardless of the path that we take to get there.
    Any of this make sense?
    Bill

  5. Ethel

    I’ve been knocking my head against school bureaucracy while trying to get them to switch the cleaners and disinfectants they use. I read a report by the Environmental Working Group on school cleaners http://bit.ly/EWGGreenSchools that suggests points out that some of the cleaners they use can cause serious health problems. There are some questions to ask your school here: http://bit.ly/H1N1Schools

  6. John Norton

    Ms. Borden: It is possible to bring children in poverty to performance levels that at least match the average of middle class kids.
    This past year, with a colleague, I wrote about six high-poverty elementary schools in Mobile Co. AL that are doing just that. The principals and teachers in these schools perform at peak instructional levels and, yes, they have built systems and alliances to address at least some of the major social issues (including mental health). I totally agree with Bill on this point.
    You can read about these ‘Torchbearer’ schools, as Alabama calls them, here: http://sn.im/wte-mobile.
    I challenge anyone who is ready to dismiss the success of these schools to spend a day at George Hall EL in inner-city Mobile and met a building-ful of educators who know how to get this done.

  7. K. Borden

    You said: “The fact of the matter is that students living in poverty have a set of unique challenges that have to be addressed before learning can even take place.” Where we differ is whether anything about the policy adopted by the WCPSS a decade ago actually addresses those unique needs.
    My concern is that instead of addressing those unique challenges, it merely addresses systemic issues.
    Will parents opt to send their children to a school where the first order of business must be to face those unique challenges? Given the choice, probably not. Will teachers seek to teach at those schools? Not enough. Can equal funding be spent on every student and equal outcomes result? No. Is every child as capable of learning as every other child? That question is far too quickly and too often answered simply as a yes.

  8. teachin'

    I guess my concern is that too many teachers also seem to think the same way Mr(s). Dohickey does. I teach in a school with an 85% poverty rate. We’re almost 70% Latino. We don’t fit in my district – most of the other middle schools are 80% white and have a 10 to 30% poverty rate. Pretty different. And they treat us like crap. At games, their students, instead of saying, “Good game,” say, “You’re gay.” Often they spit on their hands before they high-five my kids. Their attitudes are disgusting and their coaches do nothing about it, because everyone automatically assumes my kids are thugs and gangstas and “social wreckage,” and that they’re lying or that they started it if they dare to complain. Those “sweet, upper middle class child[ren]” are learning their parents’ and teachers’ attitudes, and the cycle will never break.
    I work my butt off every.single.day to do everything I can to level the playing field at least a little bit, but it’d be nice if more of my colleagues at the wealthy schools seemed to think that value existed in doing so, and realized that my kids are just as capable of learning as their kids are, if only we could deal with those tremendous challenges which aren’t the students’ faults.

  9. WCPSS language arts teacher

    As a teacher, I agree wholeheartedly about ‘false transparency’. And in regards to Mr(s). Dohickey’s comments, the law of “Separate But Equal” was struck down because equal and equitable are not the same thing.
    However, as a parent, I can tell you that your (the) argument, “We need to put the kids in ‘social wreckage’ in the desk next to your sweet, upper-middle class child”… is exactly why the parents who voted in the election voted the way they did.