Sunday, January 07, 2007

The State of Education: A Neighborhood Discussion

Okay, so I subscribe to a neighborhood eList for my part of San Jose. There had been quite a lot of discussion and debate over Proposition 13 and its outcomes. I had been skimming much of it, but I did not contribute. Finally, a few people started an offshoot thread dealing with the matter of "what's wrong with education today." Being a teacher (and a darn good one at that), I felt it was my duty to step forward with my feelings on the subject.

My initial post:
Schools, past present future
T. commented, quite correctly, that a major problem with schools today is lack of parental involvement, mainly due to work demands and lack of English expertise.

Then K. rebutted that these have always been problems for parents of school kids. Also true.

A major difference, though, (and I say this at the risk of sounding like an old fogey) is what the kids are doing while their parents are working, and how time is spent, and general parental attitude and expectation toward education and the school experience.

In the past, parents made it clear, both by word and deed (kids could look at their living example) that education had value, teachers deserved respect, and a diploma and a degree were the ticket to success.

Now, it's not only that parents may not be involved. (They certainly don't fill up parent-teacher association meetings, myself included on the parent end. And I'm a teacher.) It's that education is not necessarily a guarantee of career or financial success. (Look at all the people who got rich in the dot-com boom of the 90s with less educational experience than I have as a poor, underpaid teacher.) AND there is no respect for schools, teachers as professionals (just look at our salaries), or any kind of authority or institution. It's more of "no school/teacher/principal is gonna tell me . . . " and less of kids getting in worse trouble at home after a reprimand from school. Remember when you dreaded the note home? Now, kids come to school, backed by vociferous parents, ready to do battle and excuse their way out of any kind of consequence.

This is certainly not true of all parents. But it's no surprise, when you look at our media influences, that kids will threaten to try to get a teacher in trouble rather than admit being wrong and accept consequences. Today we hear kids say things like, "I'll just say a teacher molested me" when they want to avoid getting in trouble for their actions. And now we have many more single-parent families than in the past. How is one adult, in today's high-speed high-tech culture, supposed to do the work of both parents, when more is expected of the parent from work (at perhaps several jobs to keep up with the high cost of living)? Even two parents -- in our area here they're both working full-time -- struggle to keep up.

Gone are the days of Wally and the Beav, when Mom was always home to make three square meals, help with homework, do all the housework, AND bake cookies for the class party. Not that those days are preferable; I work full-time, and I am a wife and mother. HOWEVER, society has changed. Heck, EVERYTHING has changed.

Except education.

We still expect to do things the way we always have and get new and better results. Kids do not attend school in a vacuum. School staff frequently deal with neglected, hungry, improperly dressed kids day in and day out. But you better not give a kid an aspirin or even a hug.

Even when schools appear to be different nowadays, due to new technology or different methodology, any teacher who's been at this game a while can tell you about the pendulum swinging back and forth every few years on any number of issues in education. And all the computers in the world aren't going to change a thing when you have a system (and parents) who demand the A-B-C-D-F manner of grading, tests with pencil and paper, and all kinds of old standbys of yesteryear's schools.

I'm not saying any one thing is bad or good, or that any one method is preferable over another. What I am saying is that the world has changed. The same problems may exist, such as the parental language barrier and overworked parents, but they are so much more magnified in today's school climate. You're not going to tell me kids haven't changed. They know more by the age of ten than most of us adults knew by the time we finished high school. Not curriculum, such as grammar, math, science, or history -- although they have more information at earlier ages than they used to, since information is so readily accessible -- but they are much more worldly wise and have experienced so much more . . . often not for the better.

Education . . . and especially the funding thereof . . . is an incredibly intricate and complicated issue. No one statement can accurately sum up its problems or their solutions. And blindly throwing money at those problems is certainly not the solution.

I have had my rant for the new year. Stepping down now . . . .


I just figured I would get a few brief comments on the public forum. Not so. But I did hear from some people . . . . . .

From J.S. –
Lots of good points, Diane.

I know my parents were that way. They were poorly educated but fierce in their support of teachers, administrators and education in general. If we kids had a complaint, my parents' attitude was, "Live with it."

In reality, the quality of our teachers had a normal distribution: A few were great, most were adequate, and a few were terrible.

My folks insisted that we kids take responsibility for our learning. They couldn't help us with homework; they weren't educated enough. But, we were expected to do it, to try our best, and to get good grades. And if we didn't, it was our fault, not the teacher's.

They believed that we kids had to learn how to function well with any quality of instruction. As they said, "When you're an adult, you're not always going to have the perfect job or the perfect supervisor, so you'd better learn now how to overcome these kinds of obstacles because you're going to have to face them all of your life." And they were right.

From T. –
Very, very, very well said! :)

From K.S. –
I think you have really captured the essence of the whole education system problems. Everything has changed and the system has not even come close to adapting.

Having several good friends who are teachers and a mother who decided it was time to retire for the reasons you listed (not because she ever stopped loving teaching kids) I just wanted to let you know I appreciate your frustration as a teacher and a working parent. I often wonder what it is going to take to engage the public in helping make the changes.
Hang in there,

From A.W. –
Hi Diane,

I am going to reply off-list because I don't want to get attacked by the rabid eListers.

I totally agree with you that everything has changed except education. I'm not advocating some drastic, immediate change (which just ends up being the current fad) but I think we need to start moving in some new directions.

One thing I believe (and feel free to disagree!) is that we have to let go of this notion that parent involvement is ever going to be a big part of kids' success in school. I see lots of "involved" parents who seem mostly interested in fundraising or social activities at their kids' school. But, as long as their kids' grades stay up, they have no clue what the kids are doing with their free time (and their cars and cell phones and spending money and internet access). Others have no idea that their child is struggling in some way until they drop out of college in their first semester (one who spent twelve years at Harker!).

And, of course, there are all of the parents who work or don't speak English or whose kids pass them academically by late elementary school. They may want to be more involved but can't.

I think we need to evolve toward a system that is academically rigorous but more self-contained. But that would require longer school days and longer school years, which would require more money. Of course, if we could improve the educational system we could reduce the number of young people entering the criminal system and we could save money in the long run....

Just some thoughts.

From O. –
I agree with everything you said....I am a 5th grade teacher in SJUSD.....5 more years to go before retirement, have been a widow for 17 years....raised my 2 kids by myself (both college graduates) and I am dealing with exactly what you said in the classroom!

From D.J. –
Diane...thank you for your very well said and well rounded comments!

From C.S. –
Hi Diane,

Your "rant" (your word, not mine) was one of the most articulate, well-thought-out posts I have read in a long, long time. Thank you for the time and effort you took. I am sending this message only to you to let you know that I truly appreciate it. I fear that what you wrote will still set off another rash of tirades, and I don't want to get involved in that.

Well, now, that opened my eyes a bit. Seven different people, just in the area in which I live, expressed support for what I had to say. And I feel passionately about this, so that was really some significant validation for me. And so I posted again, just to express my gratitude . . .

Maybe I should rant more often
Just thought I would throw in here that, much to my surprise, I had exactly SEVEN e-mails today from other eListers who wanted to privately lend some support or agreement to some or all of what I said about the education system yesterday evening. A common thread in their messages, though, was that they felt public comment on the eList would invite harsh criticism from the rest of the eList. And, having thought about it, I think they could be right.

I once offered my opinion on the eList and had a local resident and business owner (whose business I will NEVER patronize now) tell me I should move out of Willow Glen if I didn't agree with . . . well . . . HIM.

That having been said, I really do enjoy the interchanges here, as long as they remain civil. There have been times when I have either had no opinion on a topic, or had only one view, and the voices here gave me varied perspective and a lot to mull over. For that I am grateful. It's what makes our country great, really.

In other news, I've just spent an incredible day, working without my co-teacher (who was absent), with six classes of third and fourth graders as we embark on a new project in technology class. Their enthusiasm and willingness to move forward with the project really gave me the warm fuzzies today, despite the fact that they were antsy from having to sit and listen to me so long instead of logging in to their computers right away, and that third graders really are just second graders with a couple more inches of height. I then tutored a middle schooler, finished up a sample project, and graded a bunch of first and second grade PowerPoint mini-projects before I could head home to my family and supper. (And e-mail, of course.)

Of course, I would like to get paid more and have less take-home work. And I would like to spend a weekend with my family, or my entire Christmas Break, without feeling guilty over paperwork that sits ungraded, but I get something many of you probably DON'T get from your careers: a chance to touch the future and to see the effects of my work right before my eyes on a daily or weekly basis. I actually had a seventh grader (who has been in my class for two years before this) say to me yesterday, "Hey, I just learned something!" when he was doing research and compiling data for a project in my class.

Thanks to everyone for their support of educators like me and the work we do.


And got MORE replies . . . .

From L.A. –
PowerPoint is now taught in First Grade?! Wow! This is definitely getting kids ready for the modern workplace! ;-}

I joke that all I do at work is make cartoons in PowerPoint, as no one has time to read a document anymore. When coworkers say they don't know the PowerPoint tricks, I can now threaten to send them back to First Grade! I love it!

From E.S. –

Here's number eight. I read your earlier message on WGNA elist and thought to myself, "Here's someone who thinks the way I do."

I've been retired from teaching in public schools since 1987, but dream about being in the classroom almost every night. I appreciate what you're saying about public education and the teacher's life. It's always good to read about successes in school.

Keep up the good work.

From D.J. – (again)
Thanks again Diane for your are magical in your wording and phasing.

From D.D. –

Much of the chat about Prop 13, schools and education I just glossed over. Some I agreed with, some I did not. As part of my New Years resolution to be kind, civil and refrain from causing trouble, I opted to stay out that conversation. However, after reading your most recent comments, I have only this to offer. . . . . . .

You folks who get up every morning and brave the sacrifice and frustrations to teach the young of our community and California stand as tall as any brave soldier who put on a uniform. You both are fighting for a stronger and safer country, and better world.

As for those who would thank you and stand with you privately for fear of offending a fellow neighbor, that is their choice. For me, I don't care if the whole world knows how much we appreciate what you are doing... even for those that were not born here or born of full citizens. Those kids you care so much about... it was not by their choice they find themselves in your trust.

God bless you, and my heart goes out to you.

From M.H. –
have you ever considered recruiting a volunteer from the ellist to help with the paper grading? there might be some retirees who have time on their hands and would be glad to lend a hand. three of my 5 children are teachers, albeit high school, so i understand the rewards of teaching - and the frustrations.

P.S. i missed the ranting and also the responses.

From B.S. –
Beautifully said!

From R.A. –
Hi Diane,

I really enjoyed your email. I liked hearing about your school day--as intense as it was! It reminded me of my parents.

My parents were both teachers and it's amazing to hear what non-teachers have to say about the state of education, the quality of teachers, etc. It's a very different perspective when you are an educator. I defended my parents on more than a few occassions when someone would remark about how nice it would be to have summers off and all of those school holidays. HELLO? Well, my mother got up at 5am almost every school day to prep for classes--she like to cater her curriculum to her students and enrich it a bit, so she went the extra mile. And for what? For those occassions, like yours below, of having a student really 'get it'. It was like recharging her battery when one of her students grasped onto a concept they had struggled with and then went with it. And for the last three years she taught school, she also tutored in the afternoons. Summers off? Well, not really. She did, afterall, have to make ends meet (she was a single parent for part of her career). While my brother was in college, she taught summer school to help him out. You know what he does now? He's a teacher.

My father taught college. He got up at 4:30am every school day to prep for his classes. (He didn't sleep much anyway, but still....). Even though he taught some of the same classes year and after year, he didn't used the same syllabus. He would vary it. That kept him fresh which in turn kept the students engaged.

Thanks for your efforts teaching. By the way, at what school do you teach?

So I told that last person where I teach. And I felt good about myself, my profession, and my choice to stay in it even when it has been tough (and financially UNrewarding) . . . for the first time in a VERY long time.

It's good to know that, depsite all the naysayers, there are people all around us who support what we do. Edu-geeks, CHARGE!!!!

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