Dr. Ravitch has us fired up and she makes a lot of sense! Here is a link to her speech. One thing that she said that truly resonated with me was, "The problem is not our schools. The problem is poverty." The example is that all of our American schools that have 25% or less students categorized as impoverished, are as well if not better then EVERY other country ranked according to international test scores. There is a divide in this country that can no longer be denied between those with money and those without it. Money can't buy you happiness, but it does afford you choices. Parents with the means to do so can decide where to live and what schools they want for their children, or if they want to pay for private schooling. Parents without means have no choices. They must live where they can afford to live, and are usually relegated to the neighborhood school. THIS IS NOT AN ARGUMENT FOR CHARTER SCHOOLS. My argument is that the suburban school and the inner city school should have access to the same resources and be of a similar quality.
Poverty is a far bigger problem then the union or teacher quality as the corporate reformers would have you believe. I've taught in suburban schools and in inner city schools, and they are separated by a whole lot more than geography.
Life in a suburban school:
1. Parents who introduce themselves, who ask "how can I help", who make sure homework gets done, and who attend meetings and accept phone calls.
2. Principals who spent more years in the classroom than as administrators, who support you professionally and could offer advice and constructive criticism when needed, who respected you as a professional.
3. Students who come to school ready to learn, who have the pre-requisite skills needed to perform in the classroom, who have the supplies needed to do their work, who show ALL school staff the respect they deserve, and who have been taught to value their own work.
4. Supplies are distributed as needed, teachers have access to photo copies, a laminator, and maybe even an Ellison machine, they are given new books and materials on a regular basis but are not pigeon wholed into using ONLY those materials given.
5. Instruction IS NOT DICTATED!! We are encouraged to meet the needs of our students as individuals using whatever means and materials necessary to get the job done. (Unfortunately as more and more suburban schools fail to reach NCLB benchmarks, this one is changing. More suburban teachers ARE being dictated to with enforced pacing Guides and scripted programs making curricula "teacher proof")
Life in an inner city school:
1. Parents come in 2 categories: The "poor excuse for a parent" who you've NEVER met, who never answers a call, letter or request for meeting, and who NEVER sign a report card. Also, there are parents who are involved in drugs, gangs, or are incarcerated. They show up at the school high or drunk, they curse you out in front of their child and have TAUGHT their child to disrespect all authority and to hate everything about school. The parents who abuse, neglect and ignore their child or leave their child to raise themselves. Luckily these parents are a minority. Most parents DO want the best for the child; however, they don't have the money to buy basic supplies on minimum wage salaries, they don't have the time to make sure homework is done because they are working 2 or three jobs to keep a roof over their child's head and food in their belly. Perhaps they can't help with homework because they don't speak English or they never finished school themselves and don't understand the work. These are the parents who do the very best to make time for their children and will cry on your shoulder when you do meet with them.
2. Students who arrive in Kindergarten already 2 years behind their counterparts. That's right folks, the "Achievement gap" is measurable at the age of 3. These students and their teachers are constantly playing a game of "catch up" where even the top third grader may be 1-2 years behind same age counterparts. Students who are abused, neglected, homeless, unhealthy, under-developed, second language learners, who are raising their younger siblings, taking care of an array of adult responsibilities (Where is there time for homework and studying), who are disabled due to prenatal drug/alcoholic use, malnutrition, poor prenatal care, etc. Students who are behaviorally challenged (who wouldn't be with that kind of stress in their lives?). The ones who constantly start fights, abuse the other students, curse out teachers and other school staff, the ones who throw desks and other furniture, who bring weapons to school, who already have lost hope and have no value for education. (When my children's teachers complain, I invite them to spend a day in my school. Did I mention I teach grades 1-2?)
3. Principals who may have only spent 3-7 years in a classroom. Principals who are more concerned about what they look like on paper than the actual education of the children. Principals who REFUSE to discipline any child for poor behavior (bullying, leaving the classroom, refusal to do ANY work, disrespect, swearing, talking back, fighting, PHYSICAL ASSAULT ON STAFF!) Principals who REFUSE to leave their offices yet insist on micromanaging every aspect of the day.
4. Supplies include 30+ year-old science books, 10-year-old language arts programs (so old the company no longer makes consumable practice books for it), out-dated, out-modded math programs that do nothing to teach basic skills. No access to photo copies or laminators. No access to regular office supplies (Don't run out of anything because you will not be given more and you will not be given what you ask for)
5. INSTRUCTION: Scripted programs (do not deviate or you will be reprimanded and written up. Free-thinkers do get fired regardless of tenure if administrators hammer at it long enough and make them look as bad on paper as possible) Enforced pacing guides (NO SKIPPING OR JUMPING AROUND), everyone must be teaching the same lesson, on the same day, in the same way. NO supplementing the programs with "none approved materials". Only district approved materials are allowed. (We are forced to be sneaky and break "rules" so that we as classroom teachers can ensure that our children are actually learning. They say "Differentiate and use Response to Intervention techniques," but they force us to teach a one-size fits all curriculum and reprimand you if you deviate.
I see a lot of differences within my own district because even big cities have "nice" areas. A school uptown has brand new facilities, new materials, advanced technology and are given more money. Schools in the "ghetto" are left to molder and crumble (Our roof leaks, the basement floods, stairs are broken, mold is on our cafeteria walls), we are denied supplies, requests for help are denied. Sure under NCLB our students could transfer to one of the "nice" schools uptown or one of local charters, but they won't take our kids, and if they do, they kick them out before Thanksgiving.
So YES, poverty is a problem, but our attitude toward the impoverished is even worse. The lack of equity between the truly poor and others becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The "ghetto" kids do need more money, only because the just need more. They do need longer days filled with rich curriculum that can show them not only the basics of reading and math, but the world in which they live. They need good nutrition to keep their brains working. They need less stress in their young lives so that they CAN focus on their work. They need basic supplies and rich materials. They need access to technology. They need a fair chance to succeed and have equally bright futures, but most of all, they need HOPE, that a future is even possible.