Sunday, November 16, 2014

When students game the 'reformy' system

A teacher friend who lives and works in a western state informed me of an interesting trend within her district. Even though she is tenured, she asked me not to identify her or the state in which she lives for fear of retribution. (Are you listening, Campbell Brown?) I'll call her Mrs. Smith. Her story is the perfect example of how the one-size-fits-all approach of education 'reform' in the most culturally and economically diverse country in the world is damaging many of the students for which it was devised, and how the students are fighting back. 

Mrs. Smith teaches high school language arts to students who have not passed the state standardized tests. She is their last, best hope for graduating. They love her because she's caring and compassionate, and her lessons are fun and engaging, but she also knows when to pull out the tough love. 

As with millions of students across the country, Mrs. Smith's students will head down a variety of college and/or career paths once they graduate. For many however, getting that diploma will signal the end of their formal education because unlike a school such as Ridge High School in Basking Ridge, NJ, with only 2% of its student population economically disadvantaged and most students going on to 4-year colleges and a much wider range of future career options, Mrs. Smith works in a district where 100% of students live at or below the poverty level, and there's a big difference in educational outcomes and career paths between the two. 

According to a recent study of US children by Dr. Glenn Flores and Bruce Lesley published in JAMA Pediatrics: 
  • Childhood poverty has reached its highest level in 20 years
  • 1 in 4 children lives in a food-insecure household
  • 7 million children lack health insurance
  • A child is abused or neglected every 47 seconds
  • 1 in 3 children is overweight or obese
  • 5 children are killed daily by firearms
  • 1 in 5 experiences a mental disorder
  • Racial/ethnic disparities continue to be extensive and pervasive
  • Children account for 73.5 million Americans (24%), but 8% of federal expenditures
  • Child well-being in the United States has been in decline since the most recent recession

So, 100% of Mrs. Smith's students fit some or all of this criteria. Assuming that they all received supplemental governmental support, according to a ground-breaking 1980's study they all had a 32 million word gap compared to 98% of Ridge High School students by age four. This is not to say that none of the students in Mrs. Smith's district will break the cycle of poverty in which they were raised. Research has also shown that those hurdles can be overcome with early intervention and concerted effort by the student and the adults in their life, but the odds are greatly stacked against them from the start.

Many of Mrs. Smith's students work to help support their family, and many times work takes precedence over school. For most, college isn't in their future because any extra money that comes in goes to helping the family make ends meet. 'College and career readiness' is as foreign to them as a real bagel. (Trust me, there are no real bagels west of the Delaware River.) They see no value in trying to pass standardized tests that are too hard for many adults, that won't help their parents put food on the table today, and that simply will not guarantee any future success. 

But thanks to the Common Core and its standardized testing spawn, with it's false promise of a better, newer, shinier life if you only pass these tests and put yourself into debt for the next 20 years paying off college loans, Mrs. Smith's students' needs are not being met in school. As in many schools across the country, programs that will greatly enrich her students' lives and learning like art, music, physical education, foreign languages and vocational classes have been cut back or eliminated. Like many other states, Arne Duncan is holding their's hostage. If the kids don't pass the tests, the state doesn't get their money.  

But, many of the students in Mrs. Smith's district are a lot smarter than Arne Duncan & Co. think. To dodge the testing mania, many will simply drop out, scrape together a couple of hundred bucks and enroll in the local community college where they'll earn their GED with nary a standardized test in sight. 

And that, dear readers, is pure genius.