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Friday, January 13, 2012

License to carry

"Please allow my daughter to carry her backpack during the school day. She needs it because she has to carry a lot of books."

That's the note I wrote for my kid to bring to school this morning. I wrote it because she was told by her home room teacher yesterday that she can't carry her backpack around her middle school unless she has a note from home. Carrying a backpack violates a rule. My daughter wasn't sure why the rule exists, but she figured it has something to do with drugs or weapons. After all, she explained, they're not allowed to have water bottles because some kid once brought vodka to school in a water bottle.

Here's what school should be: A place where kids feel safe and respected.

Here's what school shouldn't be: A place where kids feel that adults assume the worst of them and where they are unfairly punished for the infractions of others.

The intention behind such rules is no doubt good, but it's like burning down your house to deal with termites.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Homework, history, privilege, guilt. It's all so complicated.

So did you hear about the school in Georgia that, in an attempt to integrate the social studies and math curricula, wound up sending home a math assignment that asked questions like, "Each tree had 56 oranges. If 8 slaves pick them equally, then how much would each slave pick?” and, “If Frederick got two beatings per day, how many beatings did he get in 1 week?” Yeah, really. That happened.

So here’s a piece exhorting public schools to do a better job with racial sensitivity. It reminded me of another, related issue:  They also need to do a much better job with socioeconomic sensitivity. We all should.

I’m amazed how often my kids have come home from school with assignments like, “Bring in a photograph of your house,” or, “Write about your family vacation.” These are such enormous cans of worms to open. It’s got to be tough on the kid who lives in a cramped apartment in a run-down building or even a shelter, seeing his classmates’ houses and even McMansions; or the kid whose parents are working multiple jobs to support the family and have precious few hours at home, hearing her classmates’ stories of ski trips, summer camp and cruises.

And then there are the assignments that require kids to bring in materials. My kid comes home with a list of stuff he needs to complete a group project; rather than tell him to divvy up the list with the group, I purchase the lion’s share of the list for fear that the expense will be a burden to a kid who really shouldn’t have to bear it. Most of the time, these projects could be simplified to require fewer materials - so why aren’t they?

This is a very socioeconomically diverse school district; don’t teachers think about these things?

But then again, I often don’t, either. I got schooled, so to speak, when one of my kids came home with an assignment to write about an object of importance to his family. This rang no alarm bells with me - it’s an object, not a house or a trip. Every family has some object that matters to them, right?

The afternoon the kids read their essays to the class, my son came home and told me it was his most emotional day at school. One essay had brought most of the class to tears. This student wrote that he had no object about which to write, because he’d been in foster care for a long time and he owned nothing of importance to his family.

That stopped me cold. The word “family” is an alarm bell, too. One I’d forgotten all about.

As it turned out, the kid did an excellent job writing an essay that educated his classmates (and I suppose his teacher, too) about his situation. I will never know what it cost him to do that; whether it was a positive experience for him, or one he would rather have lived without. But I feel pretty damn certain that he should have had a choice; that if he’d wanted to, he could have worked his story into some other essay. He should never have been put on the spot like that.

I hope schools are starting to recognize these problems and give teachers guidance in avoiding these situations.  And I’m rethinking what I tell my kids, too. Because, let’s face it, you can’t expect a kid not to mention her summer vacation to her friends for fear they can’t all afford the same, but you have to teach kids to be aware of their privilege. How do you navigate these tricky waters? Or am I the hopelessly patronizing white liberal trying to pad the world for people whose problems I don't truly understand? I remain unsure.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Wherein I walk a thin line on tenure

As a parent of public school kids and a vocal opponent of what I like to call education reforminess (the corporate-style, data-driven, high-stakes-testing-loving brand of education reform being foisted on the nation by everyone from Bill Gates to Chris Christie to Arne Duncan), I have a confession to make: I feel deeply ambivalent about teacher tenure.

Tenure reform is one of the key planks in the reformy platform. I have no doubt that this is primarily an anti-union measure driven by big-business interests that hate all unions generally and want to privatize education in particular. The Waltons, Kochs, and Gateses of the world would have us believe that American schools are failing in large part because tenure is protecting the jobs of lousy teachers.

This is absurd. Where schools are troubled, kids and their communities are poor, and they’re not getting the support they need. More affluent schools are doing just fine, and the tenure rules are the same in the best-performing and worst-performing schools. To blame the underperformance of troubled schools on tenure is like blaming World War II on Romania. The Allies couldn’t win the war by defeating Romania, and you can’t improve troubled schools by reforming tenure.

But that doesn’t mean tenure isn’t problematic.

I fully appreciate that, as public employees tasked with a job that depends heavily on many outside factors and that is subject to political pressures, teachers need job protection. I also understand that the “tenure is a job for life” argument is a myth, because tenure allows for dismissal after due process. And I believe wholeheartedly that teacher assessment based on students’ standardized test scores is a stupid, stupid idea.

But there seems to be general agreement that the “due process” provided in New Jersey and elsewhere under tenure is burdensome in the extreme. If you can’t nudge a teacher out some other way (and more often than not, you can), and you have to go to the formal process, it’ll take way more time and money than most districts are able or willing to expend in most cases.

Why does this worry me? Because, like most parents of kids in the public school system, among the dozens of wonderful, caring, competent, hard-working teachers my kids have had, I’ve encountered a tenured teacher who was really not cut out for the job. REALLY not cut out for the job.

I know what a lot of people will say: As a parent, I don’t have the whole story. As a parent, I’m not objective. Job termination is not necessarily the right answer. Professional development and/or transfer to a more suitable position might be viable options.

All true. I could be wrong. But I could be right. If I’m not right about this individual, someone somewhere is right about another teacher - someone who isn’t doing the job well and isn’t fired because it’s simply easier and cheaper not to.

Again, let me emphasize - I don’t think this is a systemic problem that is destroying public education. I don’t even think it happens much at all. And I certainly don’t think, as Perth Amboy superintendent Janine Walker Caffery implied in a recently published column, that kids are endangered by druggies and abusers who remain in the classroom because of tenure. In no way do I want to contribute to that brand of “education in crisis” reformy hysteria.

So what to do? The NJEA has made a very sensible tenure reform proposal: Add a fourth year before tenure is earned, and streamline the process for removing a tenured teacher using an arbitration process.   It seems to me that this would address my concerns quite well. Unfortunately, in the current highly charged atmosphere in which teachers are under attack from politicians and the Billionaire Boys Club, it must feel to teachers like capitulation on the part of the union. I fully understand their resentment. The way things are these days, if it were me, I’d be the Fox Mulder of teachers and trust no one.

But I hope that, at some point, we can move beyond the grandstanding and mistrust and do the right thing. It won’t affect the big picture, but every once in a while, kids in a particular classroom might be spared a few hours a week with an unqualified teacher. That would be a good thing.