Monday, December 24, 2007

The Tragedy of Education

I wonder how many times we have heard stories similar to this one featured in yesterday's Washington Post, where the bright idealism of education meets the harsh realities of school life in an urban area? The Post featured Calvin Coolidge High School, and the efforts of its youthful principal to bring about change. In addition to the print story, the Post offers a photo essay online and a multimedia presentation featuring eight teachers at Coolidge High.

What is instructional about all 8 of these teachers is the idealism they carry with them into their teaching assignments and what is conveyed in each profile is that wall of reality that they crash into, every day. It is not simply the fact that students are willful and at times or regularly disobedient, but the fact that they are completely unprepared by the time the cross the threshold at Coolidge High.

This bit, just near the beginning of the article, sums up the atmosphere:
There is a struggle going on at Coolidge, and at schools across Washington. A battle every day for the will to be something better against a mud-suck of chaos.

Both sides are powerful.

Sometimes it's hard to say which is winning.

Sometimes it is frighteningly clear.
There have been changes at Coolidge, some programmatic and some cosmetic, but a couple of themes stuck out: Lack of enforcment and lack to common sense. There is a dress code at Coolidge, but because the goal is to keep students in the classroom, it is not strictly enforced by sending kids home or calling their parents.
One kid takes his shirt off, revealing a sleeveless tank. Students had been customizing their uniforms -- turning up collars, wearing beads -- but increasingly some are abandoning them altogether, showing up in jeans and T-shirts. Teachers mostly say nothing.

Out-of-uniform students "are supposed to get a call to the parents or sent home," acknowledges Vice Principal Samuel Scudder, but because the goal is to keep students in school, the policy is not strictly enforced. Still, even out of uniform, most students dress more conservatively than last year.
Such a small victory, kids dressing more conservatively than last year. When kids are disciplinary problems, they are ejected from class though, sent to the principal's office, which rarely if ever occurs. The Post story is peppered with allusions to kids roaming the halls. The photoessayist actually photographed a kid smoking marijuana in a stairwell!!

I realize that the administration may have to pick their battles, but I wonder which battles are being chosen.

As for common sense, when I read this segment I was floored. Earlier in the story, the writer detailed how one teacher was attacked by students.
Sgt. Franklin James, head of Coolidge's seven-person security detail, patrols the same third-floor hallway he walked as a Coolidge student a decade and a half ago. On the day Willis was hit, he says, classes were changing and guards were switching posts. The officer on the second floor was on the way to the third floor.

Security officers get blamed for what happens in the halls, but the problems go much deeper, he says. "Extra manpower would be good," he says, and finding money so guards could have two-way radios would be even better. But for real, "all the weight can't just fall on security," he says. "If you have teachers here on time, the kids wouldn't be in the hallways. It's a team effort."
What kind of security arrangement has the guards changing posts at a time when they are probably needed most--during class changes. A much more common sensical approach would be to have the guards change posts while kids are in class. That is just basic security 101. The episode simply illustrates that the adults in the education system don't use their heads any more than some of their students.

But more than anything else, this paragraph seemed to sum up the problems at Coolidge and with educaiton in general:
Burton acknowledges that there are problems. "We aren't as consistent as we should be in dealing with students," he says, "for some good reasons and for some unclearer reasons." They put a discipline plan in place last year, Burton says, "but to be quite honest, we didn't follow it to the letter, because if we had, the consequences were a little too high" -- like automatic suspension for cursing. Or pointless -- like calling parents when sometimes parents were in no position to help.
In short, we want high standards, we want high expectations, we want students to behave and learn. But at the same time, we don't want to look bad when the students don't meet expectations. We worry about the self-esteem of students to the point that we don't expect high performance or adherence even to a dress code.

Idealism is wonderful and the youthful energy of young teachers can be a benefit, but in the face of reality, who wins?

1 comment:

"Ms. Cornelius" said...

Do we want to make deals with kids to keep them in school, or do we want kids to meet certain standards? What lessons are being taught here? Is it that sheer power of numbers will overcome expectations?

I have sadly seen that behavior in too many schools (as a sub) but thankfully not where I now work, for the most part. And a few of these were in tony, leafy suburbs where the administration and teachers were afraid to discipline the students for fear of Mommy and Daddy coming down to the school in their Rolls or their Hummer to stand up for widdle Pweshus. So it is certainly not just an inner city problem.