20 Aug 2014
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Why Are Our Public Schools Failing?

There is plenty of blame to go around. So where are the solutions?


(Editor's note: As we go to the ballot box to vote on a parcel tax and state school funding measures, our columnist considers the many causes of public school failure -- and absolves one interesting choice.)

The purpose of this column is to give the average citizen a chance to view the day-in-day-out workings of the local high school—at least the portion I inhabit.

            I try, whenever possible, to give a sense of the unfolding school year.

            If you were a teacher in San Leandro's Korematsu ninth grade building this week you would probably be taking stock. Tuesday marked the end of the first quarter of the school year. Report cards are going out this week. That often stimulates a significant degree of angst among teachers.

            Kids are failing. Forty-three (almost exactly one-third) of my students received F’s in English One. Only three of those failing kids avoided an F in some other class. Most had three or more F’s. Failure is widespread.

            It’s like this every year.

            Who is to blame for this?

   Certainly I bear some of the responsibility.

            My lessons were not good enough, interesting enough, or clear enough. I didn’t make enough parent contacts. I lost my temper too often.

            And, most importantly, I didn’t always protect the good kids from the destructive ones. I live daily with the guilt that I can’t prevent noisy, vulgar, ill-disciplined kids from impacting the lives of well-intentioned children.

            My grading system harshly penalizes students who refuse to make an effort—perhaps too harshly. Several times at teacher conferences over the past few years I’ve heard speakers suggest that the lowest grade for an assignment should be 50% so that a few missed assignments aren’t fatal to a student’s chances for a passing grade. It’s something I’ve been considering.

            The School Board and the district bare some responsibility.

            The curriculum they require us to teach is stale. Many of the books and stories we teach are comparatively ancient and have no chance of engaging a modern, urban kid--and you know my opinion of mandatory algebra.

            The federal government has its hand in this problem. Methods dictated from Washington straight jacket teachers and prevent any real attempt to motivate the bottom third.  

            The wealthy parents of the district helped create some degree of failure. When some of us tried to keep tracking out of our new school two years ago (there is no tracking in middle school) parents of college-bound kids used their political influence to segregate troublesome kids away from the high-achievers.

            I understand why they did this—I might have done the same if I were in their position—but lower-track classrooms are breeding grounds for failure.

            Administrators play a part. They get so submerged with disciplinary issues and meetings that they have no time left over to lead.

            Every year there is talk of new methods to reach out to students with multiple failing grades. Within a few weeks of the start of school any teacher can identify this population; and every year we watch, horrified, as this group marches toward life as a dropout. There isn’t the time or the money to do any meaningful intervention.

            I’ve never been a parent so I feel out at sea when it comes to apportioning blame to families. When I do speak to parents of failing students I hear plaintive expressions of helplessness. Parents can’t be in the school (although occasionally one will visit my classroom), they often can’t infuse their children with the desire to succeed at the game we call school. 

            It is easy to pass most American high schools. Any young adult who cares can get a diploma. Which is why, ironically, I haven’t included students in my hall of blame.

            It seems so self-evident that whatever the rest of us do, my students have the power to steer clear of failure. 

Read other columns from the  Entirely Secondary archive.

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