Tuesday, January 7, 2014
Teach to the truth ... By Catherine McLaughlin
Let me get this straight: New Bedford High School (NBHS) has been assessed as an under-performing school. And the state’s and Superintendent Pia Durkin’s chosen “solution” is to fire 50% of the faculty.
Have I fallen through the rabbit hole? Do I see Cheshire cat-like grins in the shadows? It takes my breath away. I have news for the assessors and Dr. Durkin: they may as well fire 100%, as the best and the brightest of teachers cannot turn NBHS around. Why? Because that is not where the problem lies.
There are complex issues underlying the problems of underperforming schools. One fundamental issue is the deep pocket of poverty in the community. There is a direct correlation between poverty and low test scores. If we continue to ignore the endemic problems caused by poverty, we cannot expect these schools to perform on a par with, say, Newton or Wellesley. This is not a level playing field.
Check out, for example, the enormous rates of absenteeism among poor students, on the order of 50% or greater. You cannot teach students who aren’t there. And while you’re at it, check out the problems many of these children have to deal with, from absent parents to parents who are abusive, drunk, high, or simply do not care. Check out the good parents who care deeplybut are so overwhelmed by the struggle to survive that they cannot provide academic support for their children. And check out students with behavioral problems who are completely disruptive in class, who ridicule all authority, who hold their teachers in contempt. For this is where all these problems show their face: in the classroom, where teachers struggle to deal withthem. But teachers are limited in what they can do. Still, they do try, against all odds, to make a difference in their students’ lives. Such things are not measured by the assessors.
A second issue is that students from all levels of the economy are being failed by a system set up to cater to an ideal, where teachers are forced to teach to a myth rather than a reality. NBHS’s self-proclaimed mission is “to prepare 100% of students for college.” What is wrong with this? Here is the naked, perhaps uncomfortable, truth: if a student’s skill set does not include academics, he or she is unlikely to go to college. If you are not skilled at basketball and you are 5’4”, you are not going to play in the NBA, no matter how much you practice or how wonderful your coach is. This is the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about. Students are all across theacademic spectrum. There are brilliant students---but there are also students who are average and below average. At NBHS, the“solution” has been to place all of these students into honors or college courses, in the mistaken belief that if they have brilliant teachers and extra help and an extended school day, they willrise to the challenge. This is far from true, and many students are set up for failure at the outset, despite the best efforts of hard-working, dedicated teachers. We need to accept the reality that not all students are capable of high academic achievement, andnor are some even interested in going to college.
College is not for everyone. We need to focus on and develop and promote students’ individual talents, which may lie elsewhere; to teach to their strengths, bolstering their confidence and teaching to their full capacity.
In math, for example, students currently have the “option” of taking Honors Geometry or College Geometry. There should be a third level where they can learn the geometry they will need to survive in the real world, and where textbooks are geared to their abilities and needs. This is not “dumbing down.” This course should be as rigorous as the other two options. But the students will learn differently, and for a different purpose. The real shame is to pretend these students don’t exist, to leave them no option but discouragement and failure.
Until the problems of poverty are addressed in a meaningful way, and until we develop programs aimed more precisely and realistically at the needs of all students, nothing is likely to turn around. Certainly firing the very adults who have dedicated their lives to teaching these children is a specious decision at best. At worst, it will destroy morale and cause chaos. I would suggest instead of firing 50% of teachers, that 50% of the curriculum be re-vamped.
If a dialogue between Dr. Durkin and faculty cannot happen, then the union should take an anonymous survey of the faculty where they can respond without fear of reprisals to such questions as, “What are the most serious problems you face on the job?” We need to hear those answers. Then, and only then, can plans for the future of NBHS be formulated. Faculty and administrators must work against polarization. They must act as reasonable adults with a common cause: to educate our children and mold them into compassionate and productive members of society. The stakes could not be higher.
Posted by NBEA