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, thesolution 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 everyoneWe 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 wilneed 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.


Anonymous said...

Well said!!!!

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your post...but if there's one thing we don't need, it's another survey...we have been filling them out for YEARS! We have been ignored for YEARS! If the previous surveys had been considered in even the slightest way we would never have reached this point.

Anonymous said...

Finally someone who gets it!!!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

We should be getting NATIONAL coverage re. what is going on at NBHS. What a tragedy! Yes, no one has ever listened to the teachers who have been in the trenches every day!

Anonymous said...

The elephant suggests that Pia Durkin click her heels three times and say...

"It's the parents.

It's the parents.

It's the parents."

Forget the survey. Everyone knows what the problem is.

Anonymous said...

I agree wholeheartedly with your point regarding students who need something other than college prep courses. The lack of options and attention paid to the non college type students is elitist and discriminatory. Now all the "shops" are called the "engineering academy" which requires acceptance which leaves the non academic type student with low grades whose good with his hands with no chance of taking automotive or carpentry. All students should have a chance to succeed at nbhs not some!

Anonymous said...

As an extension of this blog I would like to share a story of just how dedicated we are. And, to throw us away, or disregard our contributions, is truly heartbreaking.

I taught students with limited or no English proficiency. Many of my students faced issues described in this post. I remember seeking council from one of the veteran teachers about the students that I could not reach. She told me that there was only so much we could do and the students must take some responsibility. Not all students attend school to learn. I struggled with this for a long time. I knew I had an obligation to these students. I needed to find new solutions to motivate them. One particular student whom I refer to as "vulnerable" dropped out of school. When he re-enrolled, I was so happy. I felt I was given another chance. He was very angry, struggled academically, abused the attendance policy, and had behavior problems. Yet, he went to his guidance councilor to change his schedule so I could be his teacher again. I did not take this opportunity for granted. As part of my informal observation, I discovered he was at a low literacy level and depended on his peers to disguise his weaknesses. Through explicit, differentiated, and one to one instruction and intervention, he was able to produce something. Please know this was tricky because class sizes were extremely large, many students required this type of support, and resources were limited. Most important, I convinced this student to attend our summer enrichment program. Imagine my surprise when he showed up. I really did not expect him to come. The best part of this story: A cold spread through our program and attendance was low. I had received an email from this same student asking me to send him the link to the web site he was working on in class. He wanted to extend his learning beyond the classroom. This site provided engaging, interactive, and meaningful skills instruction at students' correct lexile levels. He was attaining success through his intrinsic motivation. This is just one story among others. The lesson here: We know our students well. We never give up on them. We celebrate their successes. And, each milestone is a confirmation of our genuine efforts.

Anonymous said...

MCAS is the biggest problem,we are teaching students to pass a test instead of life studies.

Anonymous said...

MS. McLaughlin "hit the nail on the head". There are many students who academically do very well at NBHS and succeed in college. However there are those that struggle with academics, and that is alright as long as there is a venue for alternative skills. Why do you think GNBRVHS has done so well and is now constructing a multimillion dollar addition? Voke has been attracting more and more students away from NBHS for the last ten years. They get it, we don't! The powers that be in NB just won't admit. NB has been a blue collar city for decades and again that is alright. Forget the MCAS and lets train these kids for the area job market.

Anonymous said...

It's amazing that all of the good to great teachers teach at Voke or the surrounding towns. Amazing. How in the world did they get all the great teachers.

The more I listen to Mayor Mitchell's rhetoric, the more distasteful it becomes. If giving our students the best schools means sending them day in and out to buildings located on PCB dumps, well he needs to rethink.

The Mayor needs to get off his you know what and visit schools, and I don't mean kindergartens, I mean the middle and high schools. Get a taste, first hand of what is going on in "your" school system. See how hard your teachers are working for you.

Let's give your teachers some respect. Why don't you stop by some classrooms to actually see what is going on. If nothing less, you can shed some positive remarks for our students to hear.

bob said...

The points above are well taken and it is true that too much emphasis has been placed on the "college" bound student and not nearly enough on the "career" bound students. Unfortunately past administrators have made the decisions to eliminate many of these programs purely for financial reasons. At one time the district employed over 30 Tech. Ed instructors. Each middle school had strong Technical (Industrial Arts)programs that were feeders to the High School. Today we are left with 6 at the High School trying to establish the Academy of Engineering in an effort to restore these programs. I won't go into the details of what the Academy is all about here but if anyone has any questions they should contact me directly. This way we can avoid the spreading of misinformation such as the Academy admission process mentioned above. Just to clarify, the Academy does not screen anyone out of the program. All are admitted and the demographics of the Academy must reflect that of the school.
We can only hope that the winds of change continue to blow in our direction. These students have been ignored far too long. Now, if we only had GNBVT's budget.....

Bob Gadbois
Academy Coordinator (Unit A)
NBHS X2368

Anonymous said...

Thank you for stepping up Mr. Gadbois. It takes great courage to put a name to the post here. I'm glad you clarified that misinformation. All students deserve a chance to succeed not some. I agree wholeheartedly that tech ed must be restored district wide. I hope you can make it happen.

Pawel Dzienkowski said...

Public school teachers have increasingly taken a ration of contempt and disrespect from a thoroughly disconnected community and have even been accused of riding some sort of imaginary "gravy train" finagled by evil public employees (the private sector is very proud to have stripped their workforce of everything - broken every promise, perpetrated heinous deceptions - while lavishing incomprehensible salaries and benefits on their top management). Fellow teachers, no apologies are needed to placate the critics of our profession. They are CLUELESS about what we really do. Even if they had a tiny inkling, it is clearly inconvenient to admit that teachers are hard working, compassionate and completely misunderstood. It has always been so - since the days of Margaret Haley. Let us resort to civil disobedience. Let teachers strikes be our wake up call to a callous society. No guilt. No Shame. If we are eventually to be summarily fired to satisfy the political ambitions of our coporatized administrations, let us draw blood and give them something to really howl about...

Anonymous said...

New Bedford High School's problems can be directly traced back to the beginning of our students' education. We have huge class sizes in the primary grades in many schools, with limited or non-existent Spanish speaking staff to reach out to and support families. Schools with the highest poverty rates are the most ignored. In fact, one elementary school has been without its own building for nearly a decade and since most of their families are poor and without cars, they cannot participate in school functions because their school is not in their neighborhood. There appears to be no political will or plan to build them a new school either.
The English Language Arts curriculum, someone was hired to implement, is merely a reprint of the 11 year old basil reader teacher guide. Ask any elementary teacher what they think of their "new" curriculum for ELA and you'll get a good sense of what is wrong about NBPS.
Special education supports are abysmal. Students with IEPs are not provided the paraprofessional supports they are legally entitled and services for many students have been reduced due to less than adequate number of special education teachers to serve the caseload. When special education teachers leave, the school department can't find anyone to replace them. School Adjustment Counselors have become mere paper pushers for the special education department and overloaded to the degree that they can provide only minimal counseling supports.
Teachers have limited resources to teach the new Common Core curriculum because we need to spend our money on paying off superintendents we have fired, hiring administrators that can't do their jobs, or hiring personnel to find missing money or help us replace our antiquated fiscal system that has caused fiscal shortfalls.
When the school district does not focus on the early years as a critical foundation to learning, student learning problems are compounded. By the time these students get to high school, they are simply not ready. Ask any NBHS teacher what percent of their ninth graders are ready for high school! It is not their fault!
New Bedford Public Schools and the community members that say they care about children need to work together to figure out how to fix this broken system without blaming the teachers. Years of changing superintendents, fiscal problems due to lack of oversight, the lack of special education and counseling supports, a lackluster ELA curriculum, and limited resources to teach the new Common Core curriculum in the early years are root causes of our problems.
Let's get our head out of the sand New Bedford and work together and recognize that our only solution to real change is to support an action plan that addresses the real problems in our school district and stop scapegoating and terrorizing the teachers!
I wish I could sign my name to this, but the climate in NBPS is so toxic it is impossible to trust that the truth can be heard without reprisal.