Monday, February 8, 2010

Why Don't These Kids Learn Anything? Well Let Me Tell You...

Recently the President proposed changes to No Child Left Behind. He proposed that we judge schools based on progress instead of a benchmark, that is provided by standardized test scores. Sounds good on the surface, but in reality schools in large urban school districts succeed or don't succeed for a variety of reasons. Students succeed or don't succeed for a variety of reasons. Some of these reasons do not even pop up on the radar of people who propose to overhaul education.

I work at a school that is housed in a building roughly 100 years old. Sometimes it creaks and moans and gives off all the normal complaints that any 100 year old would give. Sometimes stuff breaks or just quits working. Note that I differentiate between the school and the building itself. A building does not a school make. The students, the staff, the people who occupy the building are the school itself, but they are all affected by the building and its operation.

This morning I arrived to discover that the fire in the boiler (We have radiator heat.) had gone out over the weekend. The building engineer was busily seeing to the building's needs by getting the heat on again. In the meantime, I arrived in my classroom only to discover the radiators were stone cold and the temperature in said classroom was 57 degrees, a very good temperature for storing wine, a good temperature for a British ale, but a wee bit brisk for a learning environment.

When my first class arrived, it was a balmy 61 degrees. Students were encouraged to wear their coats in the classroom. Somewhere around 10 AM the temperature reached normalcy. That is to say it was at least 68 degrees. Then, of course, radiator heat being what it is and impossible to control with any accuracy, the temperature went upwards of 74 degrees and students began clamoring to open windows. "It's hot in here Mr. Ray," said the young man sitting right next to the radiator. He promptly threw the nearest window wide open.

Five minutes later the young woman sitting next to him said, "I'm cold." How much real learning goes on when young men and women are actively debating the temperature of the room, and arguing over whether a window should be opened or not? How much learning goes on when the students are shivering and the teacher feels the need to wear gloves in the classroom? The flip side of this is in the warmer months when every window is opened to allow maximum air circulation and the room temperature still rises to 80. Whining, moaning, and copious sweating occur. Then the bee flies in the open window and screams of panic ensue. Let's not even talk about the time the pigeon got into the classroom.

Then there are the demands of No Child Left Behind itself. A school's fate can rest on standardized test scores. In efforts to raise the test scores, a great deal of coaching, cajoling, test prepping, and practice testing goes on. Can we just get some time to actually teach our subject matter? Rumor has it that if students can master the normal subject matter, they'll do OK on the tests. What a concept! Two-thirds of my day today and also tomorrow were spent and will be spent giving practice ACT tests to Juniors. My freshman students went to extra math classes because I was testing Juniors. Oh heck, Freshmen don't need to know social science. Standardized testing in Illinois doesn't include social science. They need more math. Who cares if it's the third period of the day in a math class and they're plain sick of it?

Of course, in the mix are the students who are constantly in the hallway creating disturbances. Most of them don't really want to be in school to begin with, but the school is where they have to go to market their drugs and meet their fellow gang members to find out what's going on later in the day. Go to class and learn something? What for?

Then there are all the days of non-attendance for students. They have a holiday to commemorate Christopher Columbus, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln, Presidents in general, Casimir Pulaski, Memorial Day, two days for Thanksgiving, two weeks for winter break (Christmas), one week for spring break (Easter), and at least one day off every month for teacher professional development. Add in assorted assemblies, pep rallies, field trips, and special circumstances and I often wonder how they learn anything. They're never in class.

Mind you there are places where learning goes on. They are called magnet schools for the gifted and talented and college preparatory high schools. The best kids in the city go there. The district showers money and resources on them. They succeed beyond your wildest imagination. The kids who couldn't get into those schools? The kids who were never very good students in the first place? They go to neighborhood schools and the schools struggle, and the students struggle. They get fewer resources. Their schools struggle to keep the heat and the lights on. Their schools struggle to ensure every student has a textbook. They try their best to get as many kids as possible into a position to be normal, decent, working citizens. And they are held up by the public as examples for scorn. Come visit us sometime and see what we do for kids. Just remember to wear warm clothes.

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