Tag Archives: parents in schooling

A GENERAL STRATEGY?

Perhaps this might help with surviving the school apocalypse.

Perhaps this might help with surviving the school apocalypse.

Two of the keys to victory in this amorphous war over public education are being religiously practiced by the progressive Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University.

The first key to victory lies in their website. Every paragraph is festooned with reformy language. Their aims seem to be indistinguishable from those of Students First or any other privatizer-friendly “research council”. By speaking in glittering generalities in order to hide their agendas, the reformy crowd has thrown out the rope by which they will eventually hang.

Everyone is for “improved outcomes” and “bridging the achievement gap”. The incessant need for reformers to assure us of their genuine desire to accomplish these things have made these terms tropes with no real meaning. Any group, organization or movement can slip snugly under the covers of this rhetoric to hide their own respective agendas.

The public has become so accustomed to these terms that no organization who hopes to truly affect education policy can afford to not use them. “Closing the achievement gap”, for example, is an idea that a deft rhetorician can use to mean equalizing resources among all schools around the country, just like the reformers usually use it to mean boosting test scores.

In the end, all it really takes is for us to repeat and aver the purity of our intentions  using these terms as frequently as the reformy crowd.

Of course, this rhetorical approach should be coupled by truly progressive action. Annenberg recently kicked off an initiative called A+ NYC aimed at lobbying the mayoral candidates in the name of what parents want for public schools. They recently sent a battered school bus around the city to reach parents who wanted to share their voices.

Not surprisingly, the biggest concerns turned out to be the disappearance of extracurricular activities and over-reliance on testing. This is a far cry from the manufactured clamoring of parents for more charter schools. It goes a long way towards explaining why Eva Moskowitz and her ilk have to get signatures of out-of-district parents to petition for charter schools.

What really needs to be done, and what Annenberg seems on the verge of suggesting, is the creation of the idea of parents as voting blocs. Parents are used to having their names invoked whenever one group or another wants to push some sort of privatization or censorship. Yet, they have never truly been framed as a voting bloc.

A voting bloc needs to be united behind at least one common idea. For parents, “great schools” are not enough, since that is a trope and not an idea. This is where the reformers fail and from whence the next great school movement has to start. Parents as a voting bloc must be connected to the idea of a “better school day”. An idea like this, on which the Chicago teachers put their fingers during their strike, is general enough to unite a wide swath of parents while having enough specific connotations to mean something.

And these specific connotations would be decidedly at odds with the reformy agenda. Instead of equalizing “outcomes”, the focus needs to shift towards equalizing resources. What will be important is what we as a society put into the schools, not what we can get out of the schools in terms of trained labor, higher test scores and no-bid contracts.

Who would be able to argue against an idea that wants great schools for all children?

Discarding the vapid terminology utilized by the reformies is a mistake. Instead, true public school advocates have to flay the reformer beast and walk around wearing its skin.

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First Marking Period Blues

True learning

I put in the grades for the first marking period today. Our school year is divided into two semesters, each with three marking periods. The marking periods last for roughly 6 weeks. Once the grades are in, parents will come down this coming Thursday and Friday for parent-teacher conferences. This is one of my least favorite times of the school year.

There is no way to put a number on teaching and learning. Trying to do it six weeks into a semester is an exercise in futility. One can say that the grades should only be based on the work a student has done up until that point. That is theoretically the purpose, but I do not see things so simply.

There are students who have been trying, but struggling through the material. They may not have earned a passing grade based purely on the work they have done up until this point. How can I fail a kid who has been trying but just not getting it? This is a potentially devastating proposition. They will think that all of their work is in vain, stop trying and then there is little hope that I will ever get that student back.

Since my school is annualized, I have been with the same students since September. There are some who are not doing so well, yet they are doing way better than the end of the previous semester. Again, giving these students a failing grade is potential disaster than can have long-term consequences.

On the flipside, there are students who are doing very well. Some are the bright students that do well with all material, in all subjects with all teachers. Others are doing well because they like the particular subject matter we have covered, or find the work at this stage particularly easy or have buckled down and promised to turn over a new leaf. For these students, too high of a grade would give them a false sense of success. Yes, they have been successful up until this point, but it might just be a stage. What happens when they start to struggle with the harder stuff a few weeks down the line? They will get the next marking period grade, see that it has gone down and that puts them in the same demoralized boat as any other student who has been trying but failing.

I am sure most teachers can sympathize with these things. Parents, on the other hand, are much less sympathetic. There are generally two types of parents who come to parent-teacher night: the ones who accept everything I say about their children and the ones who act as their children’s advocate. The latter parents assume that I am short-changing their child’s grades and will harp on every little detail in my grade book. It is understandable that they want what is best for child’s future. For me, it is a fine line to travel between sympathizing with their concerns and dismissing them as much ado about nothing.

The first thing I tell parents, as well as my students, is that these first marking period grades mean nothing. They do not appear on any permanent record and they are not used to determine any grades for future marking periods. The only grades that “matter” are the grades for the end of the semester. Some parents understand and some plain do not buy it. They think I am blowing a bunch of hot air.

What I really want to say is that the concept of attaching a number to the way a student learns is ridiculous. I want to tell them that their children need less television, less designer clothing, less internet access, more reading, more quiet time and more guidance. I really want to tell them that the best service they could provide is to be a guide for their children. Going for my jugular because they perceive that their child deserves an extra 5 points on a silly piece of paper does nothing but send the message that the learning process is all on me. How can I reach a kid whose brain is so pickled in pop culture that as soon as they hear the term “Hundred Years’ War” or “Mongol Empire”, they tune right out? How do you reach a kid who is thinking of the latest Justin Bieber chorus all of the time while sitting in my class?

There are ways to reach them, for sure, but my job is much tougher because I have to dig through layers of corporate brainwashing to get anywhere. I see these parents, many coming in their work clothes, looking exhausted and exasperated, and cannot find it in my heart to excoriate them for helping turn their children’s minds into mush. Many of them work well over 8 hours a day and have other responsibilities as well. Many are single mothers barely holding things together. Now, this middle class jerk is sitting there in his tie, telling me that my kid should read more? Who does he think he is?

This is another argument in favor of unions, worker rights and an increased standard of living for all. How can parents raise their children when they have to work around the clock to put food on the table?

So, I keep my mouth shut about these things, patiently hoping that they will see that school is not about grades. Every parent-teacher conference reminds me why I have so many students obsessed with their grades. Their parents are hoping beyond hope that this school is a ticket to a better life for their children. They want their kids to get those grades, get that diploma and go off into life with the tools they need to succeed.

Unfortunately, high school diplomas and college degrees are a dime a dozen, although they do not cost that little. What is rare are people who are active and engaged citizens. What is rare are people who can think about the world around them and figure out that not everything is the neat, clean and just system that it pretends to be.

Just once, I would like to get a parent angry about something other than a low grade.