Wednesday, June 16, 2010

This is the part where I tell you what's wrong with public education...

I’ve been thinking. Yesterday I heard a story on NPR’s UNC station that North Carolina ranks 46th in the nation in terms of how many high school freshmen graduate with a diploma in 4 years. Our statewide average is 58% - down from last year. To me, this is tragic and so, as is natural in the course of trying to understand tragedy, I find myself wondering why. Why is it that over 40% of students are unable to meet the basic graduation requirements?

Here is the upsetting, underscoring fact: what you need to do to graduate is not exceedingly difficult. In fact, even the most basic requirements are often overlooked. Attendance, for example. Our handbook says that student must attend school at least 150 days. That means they can miss 30 days of school, which is equivalent to SIX WEEKS of classes, and have every expectation of progressing towards graduation with little more than a bunch of letters from the school social worker reminding you of the importance of school. The kicker is that even the 30 days is not upheld with any fidelity. I know of a student who missed over 45 days this year…and had another 45 or so tardies on top. This child missed out of some/half of the instruction day for half the school year and faced no consequences. How can we then expect students to value education?

The fact of the matter is that the dropout rate has a crippling effect on policy administration. Stakeholders are so afraid of pushing students to the point that they drop out that they – the stakeholders - are, instead, overly accommodating and, as a result, render themselves so impotent as to be useless in any authoritative capacity. Having undercut their own authority, there is no viable power structure in place. In such a vacuum of authority, students run rampant, fighting, having sex in bathrooms (and wherever else), bullying, buying/selling/using drugs on campus, and committing all manner of other disruptive and destructive behavior.

The problem is that education has backed itself into a corner wherein there are two choices: 1.) Go all Joe Clark and implement bombastic reforms that effectively disenfranchise 40% (or more) of the student population by saying “It’s my way or the highway.” Or…2.) Turn a blind eye to state and federal rules, regulations and requirements in order to “enable” students to participate in their education on their own adolescent and uninformed terms and as much as they feel like it.

Truly, it’s a tough choice, but the consequences are even tougher. Option one leaves us with a seemingly rag-tag group of “survivors” of public education. Like soldiers, they have fought their way through exams, reports, standardized tests and the endless, inexhaustible beurocratic red tape that is the glue that holds public institutions together. They have been subjected to expectations with which they have struggled, doggedly conquered and eventually succeeded. Hopefully, they have learned not only their subject matter, but also untold volumes about their character and capabilities. Hopefully, they are empowered to continue their education in an even more rigorous setting. The opportunity cost here, however, would be staggering: hundreds of thousands of kids not graduating from high school. Oh wait…that’s already happening.

Option two furnishes us with a class of students who have graduated and “earned” a diploma as a matter of course, and not because they necessarily did anything to deserve it. Like inmates at a supermax, they’ve done their time and are ready to be unleashed on society with little realistic expectation of having changed at all since they went “inside.” They know they’d have been paroled eventually, so long as they’ve kept their noses relatively clean and didn’t do anything too terrible. Why? Because “the system” would rather quietly push them along the path of least resistance and then eventually quietly release them when nobody’s looking. Why? Because it’s easier to push them through than to actually fight to educate them (yes – it’s often a fight) and because, seriously, who wants to deal with that kid for ANOTHER YEAR? I wish I was joking, here. I’m not. I have experienced this first hand. Many, many times. And, for the record, I teach 5th grade. Imagine how irrevocably fucked up they are by the end of high school. This system devalues the diploma for all students, regardless of how much they have worked and learned. If I can spend 4 years in AP classes and carry an unweighted GPA of close to 4.0 and get the same credential as a person who never did a paper, failed every exam and was absent from school for a total of six weeks, what is the point?? I know, I know…college. But this isn’t about college. This is about the value of a diploma.

At this point, I’m fairly certain I know what you’re thinking. “Am I hearing this from a TEACHER?? The torch-bearer of optimism and enlightenment? How can she be so callous?” And I guess I am. But no more so than life itself. In choosing option #2, we have systematically devalued the high school diploma. If anybody can get it, just for showing up, it no longer represents any kind of achievement or skill set or academic standards. Essentially, it’s been relegated to a certificate of attendance. And I think you’d be hard-pressed to argue that point. It is common knowledge that a diploma won’t get you very far anymore. There are very, very few jobs available to those for whom a diploma is the nexus of their formal education. Of the few jobs available, you’d be hard-pressed to find one that pays a living wage. Gone are the golden days of fruitful opportunity where you could get your diploma, go out and get a job, and then work for The Company for 30 or 40 years until you retired comfortably with your stay-at-home wife. Like its depictions on the silver screen, those days are now relegated to the Sunday afternoon matinee on the American Movie Classics network.

While those of us who work have been doggedly working and those of us who yacht have been doggedly yachting, the American middle class has been slowly disappearing. The world for which we have worked all these years to prepare students contains a slimmer and slimmer margin of people who can honestly call themselves “middle class.” We are careening at a break-neck speed toward a new feudal system where corporations are the fief-holders and either you’re in or you’re out. Literally. You either design software for Apple or you clean their corporate bathrooms. Entry-level jobs for which you need nothing beyond a diploma are few and hard to find. And, because of our current economic crisis (created, by the way, by the need for everybody to live like a rock star), people with all kids of degrees – advanced and not – are competing with diploma-holders for the same jobs. It’s not really even fair to call it a competition.

As has been said for years, our educational system is preparing for students for a world that no longer exists and we aren’t even doing a very good job of it. It isn’t even that we’re no longer an agrarian society or a manufacturing society or even an information society. We are a wealth society. Our standard of living has changed, and everybody wants to be “upper class.” “Rich” is the new normal. But that does not and will not come without the exclusion of some people – lots of people. For somebody to be on the top there has to be people underneath them. For the rich to dine out at fancy restaurants, there has to be waiters and waiters to serve them, busboys to clean their tables, prep cooks to julienne their carrots.

I’m not saying I like this system at all. In fact, my family is perilously perched on what remains of the middle class (or, if I’m being honest, the lower middle class) lifestyle. I’m also no saying that there is no dignity in honest hard work. Nothing could be further from the truth. People should be revered and respected for their work, whatever their job or education. Every job (except for maybe middle management…hehe, just kidding) serves a purpose and has value. As a teacher, I am painfully aware of how undervalued hard, dirty-hands work is and, compared with many, my job is a walk in the park.

But this is the system we have collectively chosen as a society. Good, bad or otherwise, it is what it is. As educators, we are duty-bound to prepare students to navigate this system and to educate and empower them to work to change it if they don’t like it. A high school diploma simply won’t do it anymore. We have to stop viewing high school graduation as an end-point. It must be viewed as another stop along the way through life-long education. We must stop looking for the end. There is no end. The answer to the age old question that every teacher hears at least 100 times a day, “Are we done yet?” is simple: “No…we’re not done. We never will be. Let’s get back to work.”

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