Wednesday, December 30, 2009

NCLB in Simple Terms

Throughout this blog, the federal law No Child Left Behind, or NCLB, will be addressed many times. I could (and probably will) go into a tirade about it, but nothing I've come across better explains the frustrations teachers feel with the law than this article below. Thanks to Raymond Jones for introducing me to this article and the website for reposting the original John Taylor article from 2002.

My dentist is great! He sends me reminders so I don't forget checkups. He uses the latest techniques based on research. He never hurts me, and I've got all my teeth, so when I ran into him the other day, I was eager to see if he'd heard about the new state program. I knew he'd think it was great.

"Did you hear about the new state program to measure the effectiveness of dentists with their young patients?" I said.

"No," he said. He didn't seem too thrilled. "How will they do that?"

"It's quite simple," I said. "They will just count the number of cavities each patient has at age 10, 14 and 18 and average that to determine a dentist's rating. Dentists will be rated as Excellent, Good, Average, Below Average and Unsatisfactory. That way parents will know which are the best dentists. It will also encourage the less effective dentists to get better," I said. "Poor dentists who don't improve could lose their licenses to practice in South Carolina."

"Cavities are the bottom line, and you can't argue with the bottom line. It's an absolute measure."

"That's terrible," he said.

"What? That's not a good attitude," I said. "Don't you think we should try to improve children's dental health in this state?"

"Sure I do," he said, "but that's not a fair way to determine who is practicing good dentistry."

"Why not?" I said. "It makes perfect sense to me."

"Well, it's so obvious," he said. "Don't you see that dentists don't all work with the same clientele; so much depends on things we can't control?

"For example," he said, "I work in a rural area with a high percentage of patients from deprived homes, while some of my colleagues work in upper-middle class neighborhoods. Many of the parents I work with don't bring their children to see me until there is some kind of problem and I don't get to do much preventive work.

"Also," he said, "many of the parents I serve let their kids eat way too much candy from a young age, unlike more educated parents who understand the relationship between sugar and decay.

"To top it all off," he added, "so many of my clients have well water which is untreated and has no fluoride in it. Do you have any idea how much difference early use of fluoride can make?"

"It sounds like you're making excuses," I said. I couldn't believe my dentist would be so defensive. He does a great job.

"I am not!" he said. "My best patients are as good as anyone's, my work is as good as anyone's, but my average cavity count is going to be higher than a lot of other dentists because I chose to work where I am needed most."

"Don't get touchy," I said.

"Touchy?" he said. His face had turned red, and from the way he was clenching and unclenching his jaws, I was afraid he was going to damage his teeth. "Try furious. In a system like this, I will end up being rated average, below average or worse.

"My more educated patients who see these ratings may believe this so-called rating actually is a measure of my ability and proficiency as a dentist. They may leave me, and I'll be left with only the most needy patients. And my cavity average score will get even worse.

"On top of that, how will I attract good dental hygienists and other excellent dentists to my practice if it is labeled below average?"

"I think you're over-reacting," I said. "'Complaining, excuse making and stonewalling won't improve dental health '... I am quoting that from a leading member of the DOC," I noted.

"What's the DOC?" he said.

"It's the Dental Oversight Committee," I said, "a group made up of mostly lay-persons to make sure dentistry in this state gets improved."

"Spare me," he said. "I can't believe this. Reasonable people won't buy it," he said hopefully.

The program sounded reasonable to me, so I asked, "How else would you measure good dentistry?"

"Come watch me work," he said. "Observe my processes."

"That's too complicated and time consuming," I said. "Cavities are the bottom line, and you can't argue with the bottom line. It's an absolute measure."

"That's what I'm afraid my patients and prospective patients will think. This can't be happening," he said despairingly.

"Now, now," I said, "don't despair. The state will help you some."

"How?" he said.

"If you're rated poorly, they'll send a dentist who is rated excellent to help straighten you out," I said brightly.

"You mean," he said, "they will send a dentist with a wealthy clientele to show me how to work on severe juvenile dental problems with which I have probably had much more experience? Big help."

"There you go again," I said. "You aren't acting professionally at all."

"You don't get it," he said. "Doing this would be like grading schools and teachers on an average score on a test of children's progress without regard to influences outside the school — the home, the community served and stuff like that. Why would they do something so unfair to dentists? No one would ever think of doing that to schools."

I just shook my head sadly, but he had brightened. "I'm going to write my representatives and senator," he said. "I'll use the school analogy — surely they'll see my point."

He walked off with that look of hope mixed with fear and suppressed anger that I see in the mirror so often lately.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

A Dream (Continuing to be) Deferred

A Dream Deferred
By Langston Hughes

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Recently, I came across Time Magazine's Top Ten Underreported Stories of 2009 (,28804,1945379_1944495,00.html). The number one story? The continuing de facto segregation in our nation's inner city schools. This might be surprising to us to live in the 'burbs but for anyone who has taught in the inner cities, this story rings true. The fact is our inner city schools are currently more segregated than they were at the beginning of the Civil Rights period. African American and Latio students are especially at risk and dropout rates for these two groups are nearing the 50% mark. In a country founded on the democratic principle that everyone can and should have opportunities to learn, what has caused us to go astray?

The fact remains that as far as we think we may have progressed as a society, we still are very tribal in nature. If given the choice we prefer to be with people who look like us and think like us. There are also push and pull factors at work. Immigrant communities are often family centered with the extended family coming to a specific area to get their feet off the ground. Refugee areas are established within a certain radius giving us areas like the now famous Little Havana in Miami. Cities throughtout the country have their China Towns and Little Italys. The great myth of America as a melting pot continues to prevail, even though it is obvious that many groups have chosen not to submerge themselves into mainstream American society.

This de facto segregation causes various issues in our nation's schools. The simple truth is that the more affluent areas receive more money per pupil. This leaves the less affluent areas (read: inner cities) with less funds per pupil. These schools often have students of difficult backgrounds who have been part of generational poverty. What these students value and how they see education varies greatly from their teachers who most likely come from middle class, white-collar communities. Many immigrants can be found in the inner cities and public school teachers today may be teaching in a class with as many as five or six home languages being spoken. Young teachers face immense difficulties and often have high expectations placed upon them my administration and this leads to higher turnover in inner city schools. All of these reasons: motivation, language, and teacher turnover, lead to a difficult school environment. Yet, thanks to NCLB, these schools that are faced with these conditions must do just as well on standardized tests as the affluent school district next door.

How do we solve this? This is one of the most difficult questions in education today. Forced busing has been tried to integrate schools, but has been shot down by the Supreme Court (see Milliken v. Bradley). Therefore, we must realize that our schools are unlikely to be integrated anytime soon. We must then find a way to improve our inner city schools instead of closing them down for low performance, which is exactly what NCLB does. I suggest a way to provide funds to failing schools. These are the schools that need help the most. When someone is struggling to learn how to swim, we don't let them drown in the deep end. We give them the support they need, no matter how long it takes. We as educators, need to enlighten our local officials that NCLB is increasing, rather than decreasing the national drop out rate. Because of this, we are losing out on a generation of talented students who, due to socioeconomics, haven't had the same opportunities as everyone else. It's time to stop deferring dreams and to begin to think about what the true purpose of education is.

Friday, December 25, 2009

The Holiday Spirit: Something Right in Education Today

In the spirit of the holiday season I felt that a more uplifting post was necessary today. Therefore, I give you all a video of something we're doing RIGHT in public education today. Gregg Breinberg is the music director at PS22, a public elementary school in New York City. His chorus is immensely talented and it gives me a glimmer of hope of what education could look like without state mandated testing being rammed down our kids' throats. To Gregg and the PS22 bunch, keep rocking and rolling!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Choiceless Choice

The following is an opinion piece I wrote for a newspaper in Winston-Salem, North Carolina regarding school choice. It was based on my experience and all of the information in it is true. Naturally, it was not published. The truth hurts, I guess.

Dear Editor,

For the previous two years I was a middle school teacher at Philo Magnet Academy in south Winston. Last year, the population of our school consisted of 93% of our students being non-White. This always struck me as odd, considering the fact that Winston-Salem has a school-choice policy. It was not until I returned to graduate school this school year and thanks to the works of Donaldo Macedo, I saw that school choice for many students is not even an option. In his book, Literacies of Power, Macedo describes the “choiceless choice” that many of these students have. Having taught in the system for two years and now having an opportunity to reflect upon it, I can honestly say that school choice is not an option for a vast majority of our students here in Winston-Salem.
How is it that we have a school like Philo here in Winston-Salem? The truth is that when the idea of controlled-choice was put into place in the mid-1990’s it had an intended policy that would make sure no one school’s racial makeup deviated more than 25% from the overall racial makeup of the district. However, this “controlled” portion of the controlled-choice policy was never enforced. We now have the highest performing high school in the county that is 90% White as well as a school like Philo Magnet Academy. A book has been written by a Duke University professor named John Clodfelter titled After Brown in which he chronicles three school districts that have become so segregated that they rival levels seen in the 1940’s and 1950’s. One of the three districts Clodfelter used in his study was Forsyth County, North Carolina.

So we’ve seen the collapse of the controlled portion of the controlled-choice policy. What now about the actual “choice” part? This choice, as Macedo eloquently describes in his novel, does not exist for everyone. This is without question, the case here in Forsyth County. In theory, each student has the option of attending one of three schools in his or her zone as well as a number of magnet schools open to everyone in the county. All this student has to do is return the proper paperwork and he or she is guaranteed one of their top two schools. However, should a student not return the paperwork then he or she is assigned to their local school. For these students the “choice” was actually made for them by the school district. By not returning the paperwork, the students have in essence, assigned themselves to their home school, something they very well may not have wanted in the first place.

Why would a student not return such a vital document? There are three main reasons that lead to this outcome. The first is that the paperwork itself might never make it home. The student might not realize the importance of it, or even realize that he or she has a choice at all even though we try to remind them as best we can. The second reason is that many of our parents are either illiterate or work second and third shift. This can cause difficulties in trying to return important paperwork on time. The form for school choice is lengthy and takes time an effort and this can frustrate many of our immigrant parents. The last reason students might not return the form is that they might have family responsibilities. A large portion of our students walk to and from school. It is the expectation that they be home when their younger siblings get off the bus. Therefore, it is necessary for them to be at a school as close as possible to their home.

Thus when students then end up assigned to the local school by the district, these schools end up reflecting the socio-economic status of the area. Philo Magnet Academy is in one of the more run down areas of town. This means that there is cheap housing available for any who chose to purchase it. This area also has a large Hispanic population. Most of the construction jobs that draw in several immigrant families are based out of this area and many of our Hispanic parents that work these jobs do not have access tot their own personal transportation. Therefore it is necessary that they live near their jobs so they could walk or carpool to make it on time. Our magnet program has attempted to draw in students from higher socio-economic classes. Many of these magnet students make up the seven percent non-minority population of the school.

It was only four years ago that Philo had a White population of nearly sixty percent. However, students and parents began to choose Clemmons Middle instead of Philo and word spread like wildfire. For those who don’t believe in the concept of White flight, they clearly haven’t been in our schools. In only four years, the White population at Philo dropped by nearly sixty percent. Why is that? The answer lies simply in socio-economics. These White families had more access to resources than our minority students. They knew about school choice and the paperwork it entailed. They communicated with each other in social circles and eventually they decided that Philo wasn’t the best place for their students. Friends wanted to be with their friends and this caused a ripple effect. Philo Magnet Academy was left with the ones who experienced the “choiceless choice.”

I write to you all today to get this issue out on the table. Segregation is our schools is alive and well and it needs to be addressed. We should not have schools with such unequal racial make-ups in a district that is exactly fifty percent White and fifty percent minority. Nobody seems to be asking why five years ago Reagan High School was built in an affluent area and why Atkins High School was built in the middle of the ghetto. There is without question an elephant in the room here, and that elephant is race. It’s time to start asking the tough questions about where our schools are now compared to where they were sixty years ago. Are we actually making progress? Let the debate begin.


Welcome fellow educators and concerned citizens. I'd like to welcome you to my blog titled A Future In Peril: American Education Today. This is a blog dedicated to concerned individuals who realize we are involved with an antiquated system of education. The reality today is that American students are not receiving the education they need to be receiving and the repercussions will last for future generations. It is my hope that together we can look at education today and brainstorm ways how we can enact change. The system is broken and no top-down reform is likely to occur any time soon. Our movement needs to start now and it needs to start with concerned people like yourselves brainstorming ideas. Together we can come up with ideas that will look at various topics including the ones below:

-Our inner city schools are currently at the same level of segregation as they were in the 1960's before the Civil Rights Movement

-Over half of our inner city students do not graduate from high school

-American students are falling further and further behind in math and reading scores, which was the whole purpose for No Child Left Behind

-School choice policies that claim to be open to all students actually exclude the vast majority of students from lower socio-economic classes

-Tens of thousands of undocumented students will be denied opportunites to pursue higher education thereby denying our country future scientists, business leaders, and innovators

-Arts and music programs are being cut throughout the country and are being eliminated from schools altogether

-Obesity rates are at an all-time high among children and yet schools continue to cut recess and physical education requirements

This is just a sample of what we will be discussing on this blog. I will put forth my own ideas and solutions as to how to fix our broken sytem. You may agree with me, you may not. I will appreciate any input you might have. The most important part of this blog is that the conversation is occurring. We as a society need to put education at the forefront of our discussions because it is realted to every other major issue we are dealing with. Health care, jobs, income, immigration, economy, all these issues are directly related to the educational level of our society. None of these will be able to properly function without a fundamental system of education for all of our nation's students.