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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

One parent's story of one school district not having a crisis. Yawn.

Yesterday was a national Day of Blogging for Real Education Reform. Yesterday was also Start Cooking for Thanksgiving Day. Hence, this entry, a day late.
There’s this story going around. It goes like this:
American public schools are in crisis. They are filled with stupid, lazy, greedy, teachers whose agenda is to protect their jobs at all costs while ignoring the needs of children as much as possible. Buildings are crumbling, gang wars erupt in the hallways, and no actual education occurs. Kids graduate without being able to read or do math - if they graduate at all. All of this goes on because powerful teachers’ unions are holding politicians by the short and curlies. And the taxpayers are getting screwed.
That’s the narrative you get from the media as well as from the latest crop of education “reformers” who are pushing ideas like school privatization, mayoral control, education vouchers, etc. Here in New Jersey, that’s the narrative we get from our right-wing Republican governor, who has slashed school funding and wants to create more charter schools, institute standardized-test-based merit pay for teachers, abolish tenure, and hand out vouchers for private schools. On another day, I might go into a 1,000-word rant on why wealthy philanthropists, hedge fund managers, politicians, and the media keep telling that story and proposing this particular set of “solutions.”
But not today. Today I’m getting personal and I’m changing the narrative. I’m talking about what’s worked well for my three public school kids. I know there are deeply troubled school districts that resemble the doomsday scenario much more closely than ours does - but I wonder whether, even there, the situation is as totally irredeemable as it’s made out to be. I’m asking people, before we bring out the wrecking balls and the bulldozers: First, look at what you’re being urged to destroy.
I know my list of Things That Work is narrow and leaves out a lot of important stuff, because it’s based on the experiences of just one family. I hope others in my district and others around the state and the nation will come forward and share what works for them - as well as what doesn’t - so that we can build a more realistic picture of public education in America, and a more reality-based plan to improve it.
Diversity: If our school district is anything to go by, diversity isn’t just a PC watchword - it’s effective education policy. Our student body represents the nation’s population pretty closely. The census data is pretty old at this point, but in 2000 we had 8,354 people under 18 in the district: 1,435 Latino; 1,049 African-American; 321 Asian; 6,273 white. Socioeconomically, we range from rich to poor: Our state District Factor Grouping (an index of socioeconomic status) is GH on a scale of A (really poor) to J (rolling in dough).
And here’s the thing: Everyone benefits. It’s not just about less-advantaged kids reaping the benefits of going to school with more-advantaged kids, though there is that. My white, Jewish kids have learned firsthand about our multicultural society; that achievement isn’t measured in dollars; that authority figures don’t all look like them;  that everyone has something to contribute; that everyone matters.
Research shows that poor kids concentrated together is an almost certain predictor of poor outcome.  The Morris School District offers evidence that the opposite is true as well: Diversity works. Diversity creates good schools for everyone, schools where those who need extra help can actually get it, and where those with high ability can truly excel.
Teachers: Yes, there have been a few we could have done without. But there have been so many wonderful teachers - caring, thoughtful, hard-working individuals whose efforts on behalf of my kids went far above and beyond the call of duty. There was the first grade teacher who recognized that my son’s love of dinosaurs went way beyond the usual childhood infatuation, and brought in books from her personal library she thought would engage him; the fourth grade teacher who, unasked, saved my daughter's work and compiled a comprehensive portfolio in support of her application to the gifted and talented program; the seventh grade algebra teacher who poses math questions that blow his students’ minds; the band teacher who pushes hard and makes kids feel the pride one gets from being better than one has any right to be; the teacher who built a gifted and talented curriculum from scratch because no one - not the state and not the district - provided her with even a rough outline. The list goes on and on.
Administrators: Hard to believe these folks are on the list, but yes, there are some good ones. When my daughter started kindergarten, she was already reading very well. I approached the principal to find out if she could be grouped with other kids reading at a similar level. Much to my surprise, the principal arranged for her to be evaluated by the reading specialist for a week, after which we were offered the opportunity to move her into first grade, which we did. No battles, no appeals, no threats. And then there was the administrator who dealt with the school bus bully who had targeted my kids. The fact that the bully didn’t fit the usual stereotype made no difference; he was disciplined swiftly and surely, and the teasing stopped. These are administrators who care about influencing kids, not just pushing pencils.
Music: This was a huge shocker for me. I attended an exclusive, small private school that didn’t even have an instrumental music program. I had no idea what I was missing. Now, having watched my kids pick up instruments in fourth grade and make music an important part of their lives, I realize not only that music is vital, but that, no matter what’s on my resume, I am an undereducated musical illiterate.
As part of their public school education, my kids have all learned to read music well and to play one or more instruments each. And they’ve gotten what private lessons alone could never have given them: the opportunity to play in a large orchestra or band. For those who want to reach for even higher goals, there are groups like concert strings and jazz band, where the kids are really challenged.  I am inexpressibly grateful to each and every music teacher who has given my kids this incredible gift. These opportunities are open to every kid - I know of kids who couldn't afford instrument rental, who were provided instruments free of charge, and who have excelled in the music program. 
Gifted education: New Jersey mandates it. No funding is provided. No curriculum is specified. No standard of identification is offered. And yet, through the district’s reasonably robust Quest program and a few dedicated teachers, my kids have researched, debated, created, explored, and designed, in fields ranging from business to architecture to ancient history to literature. In the current environment of standardized testing and shrinking budgets, in which the needs of gifted students who usually test well are often ignored, we’ve got staff and budget dedicated to the needs of high-achieving students. I consider this a small miracle.
Community: Being part of a neighborhood school connects us with our community in a fundamental, concrete way. It reminds us that, no matter who we are, where we come from, and whom we voted for, the shared needs of our children transcend those differences. It makes us - parents and kids - realize that all of us have to stand behind the ideal of a quality education for each and every child, and that our community is weakened when the needs of some are not met. So many parents pitch in with time, money, whatever they can, to make the schools better. Our kids see that and learn an important civics lesson about participation and volunteerism that will inform their choices for the rest of their lives.
Tolerance: Okay, I have a little confession to make. You know those painfully long, dull, out-of-tune holiday concerts we all sit through every year when our kids are in elementary school? They choke me up - every single year. Despite the fact that I don’t believe anyone should be singing even remotely religious songs in public school. Despite the fact that the Hanukah songs are way more lame than the Christmas songs. Despite the controversial origins of Kwanzaa. Despite the fact that, by 5th grade, the kids think the whole thing is pretty dumb. So do I. And yet, my innate cynicism is no match for my emotional response to that display of respect for cultures not one’s own. When those public school kids participate in an event that explicitly refuses to presume the universal Christianity of their community and their country, I choke up. I just do. So there.
 The 3 R’s: Yes, even those. Basic education. It happens.
I want to emphasize: I’m talking about suburban schools which, though not homogeneous, serve a more affluent and stable community than many schools in poor and urban areas. I am not deluding myself into believing that the status quo is acceptable everywhere, or for that matter, anywhere. But I do believe that the media, encouraged by right-wing think tanks and high-profile reform advocates, has created a grossly exaggerated view of the widespread decay of public education in America. Parents who know better, who have personal experience of a very different reality, need to stand up and tell their stories. We need to let our elected representatives know what our schools do and do not need - and we need to listen to parents in other districts whose needs may be very different.
Public education has been a good thing for our family. Will it continue to be? I have my doubts. So many changes could chip away at the things that work: over-emphasis on standardized testing; budget cuts; devaluing teachers; de-emphasizing the arts; de-secularization of the curriculum. That's why I scour the news every day to find out what legislation is being proposed; who's defunding what; which reform faction is ascendant at the moment. Lately, the news hasn't been good. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that calm heads prevail and we don't throw the baby out with the bath water.


Click here to read more blog posts written for the Day of Blogging for Real Education Reform.


Mary Ann Reilly said...

Thank you. As someone who works in public education and for MSD, I appreciate your comments.

Unknown said...

Jayme sent this on to me and I cannot tell you how much your comments brightened my day! Have a wonderful Thanksgiving and give some hugs to those three terrific kids who are missed by one of their teachers- me.
Ellen Brown

Unknown said...

I want to thank you for posting your comments about the Morris School District. I am the choral director at Frelinghuysen Middle School. I have never had the pleasure of having any of your children in my chorus classes but I offer you this.
Among the 320 students who have qualified to participate In our middle school chorus there is very little out of tune singing at the holiday concert...or any other event.
And I understand your comment regarding Hanukkah music. As such, I have personally written and produced an album of new contemporary Hanukkah songs that are about to usher in a new era of holiday music. Our middle school students and their families have been enjoying and raving about these ground breaking pieces for the last few years.
I would be delighted if you would attend our holiday concert on December 14 at 7PM. Your pride in the Morris School District will most surely escalate a few notches after witnessing our wonderful children engage in a lifetime educational memory. Hope to see you then.

Larry Gonsky

Liz said...

I am an art teacher at Frelinghuysen Middle School and this blog is the first thing I've read in several months that actually praises what we as teachers do. It has not been an easy journey since this new administration has taken office-even our own friends and family have turned away their support for educators. It is comforting to know that there are people who still support what we do for our students and understand there is still good in public education. You've made my Thanksgiving!

Kim said...

Thank you for writing this . . . as a teacher in one of those poor urban schools - I can tell you that the wonderful things you see happening for your children are there as well. There are issues; but the reality is no way the bleak picture that is painted by the media, politicians, and reformers. Thanks again for telling about your experiences.

Anonymous said...

I am a music teacher in one of those hard-hit urban districts where "all teachers are failing the students"... thank you so much for talking about music and what it can mean to children. Every day I hear people complain that there is no reason why they should fund a music program for the kids in these urban schools that can't read. The benefits you describe are exactly why these kids should have access to the performing arts. THANK YOU.

Dwal said...

Thank you so much. I really cant express how much something like this helps me get to work each day. I am a high school math teacher and I have strongly considerly leaving the field for more money in the private sector. I love my job, but to be demonized in the press is very hard for me to handle after leaving a lucrative finance job with a very high paying future for the altruistic profession in which I now reside. I know you are not a rarity, but public sentiment has somehow turned against us and we need positive praise (much as our students do) more than ever. Again I truly thank you, for it has been a lot harder to be as enthusiastic about our jobs the past few years as it has previously been and it is things like this that make us remember why we are here.

Unknown said...

It is nice to see that there are schools out there doing the right thing and not cutting Arts programs. As you've learned, music can be so rewarding for children and starting young is the best strategy. Elementary music education should be a part of every child's first experiences in school.