Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Pressure Point: How School's Today Create Mass Murderers

It's kind of hard when you ain't got no friends
He puts his life to an end
They might remember him then 

-P.O.D. "Youth of the Nation"

In the days since last Friday's horrendous shooting in Newton, Connecticut, I have been doing a lot of thinking about everything that happened.  In the days and weeks to come this story will gradually unfold.  We will hear more stories about the heroic actions of the teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  We will hear more about Adam Lanza from people that knew him best to people that will be on TV for their fifteen minutes of fame.  We will hear about Connecticut gun laws and the NRA's influence in that state.  We will hear from first responders as they provide us with descriptions of a crime scene beyond what even the most grizzled E.R. nurse or doctor has ever had to deal with.  We will hear from community members about how their simple New England town will never be the same.  

In addition, we also will hear explanations for why this happened.  Glorious, glorious explanations.  Explanations that defy logic and that are made by people with zero common sense and yet who make more in one year than you or I will make in a lifetime.  Some of my favorites so far:  Teachers should have been armed, students should have been armed, we took God out of schools, it's what we get in this country for tolerating "the gays," the school featured an all female staff, etc., etc.  We then will (temporarily) have meaningful conversations about gun control and regulation, the prevalence of violence in the media, and access to mental health.  Our politicians will promise to put aside their ideological differences and will vow to work together to ensure that what happened in Newton never happens again.  

And then, it will happen again.  

And again.  

And again.   


Since 1998, there have been eleven school-related shootings across the nation.  They have taken place from Connecticut to California.  There have been shootings from as young as middle school (Jonesboro, AR) to college (Virginia Tech).  Public schools, Native American reservations, and Amish schools have all experienced a shooting during this time period.  When P.O.D. wrote their above song "Youth of the Nation" it was composed right after the Santana High School shooting in Santee, CA in March of 2001.  Since they wrote this song, there have been eight additional killings throughout the country.  The youth of the nation that the band talks about hasn't gotten any less violent.  Why?  

Since the shootings in Newtown, pundits on the left and right have offered theories about why these kind of things happen.  I've already mentioned the more absurd ones.  Yet, believe it or not, there have been some theories that warrant further discussion.  There has been talk about the media's influence as it has been revealed that Adam Lanza's mom was an avid doomsday prepper.  There have been many good articles about living with children with mental issues and how difficult it is to get these children proper support.  Lastly, there has been discussion about the breakdown of compassion in society.  Why are all these murderers seemingly loners that resort to violence rather than have meaningful conversations about their feelings and attitudes?  

With these in mind, I'd like to offer another theory that warrants consideration.  I know, I know.  You're sick of these theories by now.  And yet, this is one that hasn't been addressed as much as it should.  It is the idea that the structure of schools today is what caused these people to crack.  The high-stakes, high-pressure environment that we subject kids to from as early as the first grade.  We test kids constantly.  Tests are what allow them to take advanced classes in high school.  Tests are what get them in or out of college.  Tests are what keep their schools open, or cause their schools to close, separating them from their peers and breaking up any kind of social bonds they had been able to create.  If you're a good test taker, then college was your reward.  If you weren't a good test taker, you could still earn the respect of your peers through athletics or clubs.  Not involved in extracurricular activities or not getting good grades?  Then, the cards are stacked against you in your public school life.  

More about Adam Lanza will come out.  However, I'm willing to bet he attended Sandy Hook Elementary as a child.  Something about that experience caused him years and years of pain and suffering.  Granted, it didn't help that mom was a doomsday prepper, and that there was a hearty collection of firearms in the home.  Yet, something made the experience so miserable for Adam that he felt the need for retribution even though he had been beyond the school's walls for eight years.  Was he picked on?  Bullied?  Called names by students?  Ignored by teachers?  Was he over-tested?  Was he under appreciated?  Yes, his actions were extreme.  But is his story that uncommon?   

The answer is no.  Today's high-pressure, high-testing school environments breed tales like that of Adam Lanza.  For those of us that have been in high school since 2001, think back to your schools.  Who among your friends thought the SAT was fun?  Who among your friends got excited to take year end state tests?  Who among your friends actually high-fived the kid in math class who broke the curve and caused everyone else's grade to drop?  Who among your friends felt happiness for a peer rather than resentment when he or she got into the school that rejected them?  Schools today pit students against each other in a real life Hunger Games.  However, in this version, the losers aren't killed.  They are the ones who end up doing the killing.  

The United States tests its students more than any other country in the world.  We constantly gripe about how low are math and science scores are compared to the other industrialized nations.  We are accustomed to being number one.  In everything.  So clearly, it's not the system we have in place, it's that we haven't been doing enough practice.  So we test.  And test again.  We don't let people pass the grade or graduate unless they past the test.  We grade schools on how well they do on these tests.  If schools don't do well on these tests then we shut them down.  We begin to care about the tests and nothing but the tests.  Our classroom instruction revolves around test-taking strategies.  Our staff meetings have conversations about how to improve test scores.  If we actually pass the tests we celebrate, even though "passing" might only mean 60% proficiency, depending on the state.  

Chances are, if you are reading this blog today, you were a decent test-taker or found something you were passionate about after school. You, at least, were able to graduate high school and college.  You may have been awkward at times in school.  Maybe even picked on. And yet, you survived.  You had a fairly normal home life and you had a support system at school with either teachers or your peers.  Now, think about the opposite end of the spectrum.  Think about those kids your school left behind.  Can't think of one?  Go through your old high school yearbook.  Find someone whose name you've never heard of until tonight.  Someone's who's senior will is blank or mentions only one or two people.  Someone who didn't join any sports or clubs.  Someone who you would pass in the streets tonight and wouldn't even have any idea that he or she was from your home town.  These are your Adam Lanzas.  

Adam was clearly troubled.  His mom was troubled.  Chances are, his brother Ryan probably had a screw loose too.  Who knows what his dad's deal was.  What he did will live on in infamy.  His name will be synonymous with evil.  He probably had a mental illness.  All this will come out in the coming weeks.  And yet, at no point will you hear about how the environment of public school's today might have been a factor.  Maybe Adam was a good test-taker that had friends.  But what about Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter whose grades were slipping and who had changed his major?  What about Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold of Columbine infamy who had been bullied constantly throughout their high school years?  These people weren't sane to begin with.  And the environment of their schools, without question, exacerbated their problems.  Until we somehow and some way of having a meaningful discussion about the pressures of school today, we unfortunately will continue to have school shootings, regardless of any temporary stop measure that politicians put in place in the coming weeks.  

As P.O.D. sang in "Youth of a Nation":  

I guess that's the way the story goes.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Text Messaging: How Today's Publishing Companies Dictate Public Education


The above phrase was one that recently came across my screen as I attempted to create a course outline for the UC A-G system.  As a recently accredited high school, the next major step for our school was to submit all our courses to the UC system to ensure that these courses would be approved for any of our seniors who applied to the UC system.  It was a lot of work, especially for those of us who have multiple preps.  For the most part, it was a simple matter of copying and pasting our curriculum outlines including our units and corresponding learning objectives.  It was all self-explanatory and, for the most part, made perfect sense.  Except for the fact that we had to provide a course text for all courses.  

To understand why I took issue with this, you have to understand my educational background.  As a social studies education major, one of my assignments was to look at a variety of textbooks and to compare them against North Carolina state standards.  What I found was that the textbooks were all over the board in terms of covering the material they were expected to cover.  Some of the textbooks covered topics in depth while others missed them entirely.  This was eye-opening, especially when we saw that all students were expected to have mastered the same material for the end of grade exam throughout the state.  Therefore, it was possible, nay probable, that students would be tested on material that wasn't covered in their textbook and that they had no knowledge of.  

Flash forward to my first year teaching.  I ended up as my school's 7th grade representative for selecting new textbooks for the district.  Myself and fifteen other middle school teachers representing all middle schools in the district attended a textbook fair where we got samples and saw presenting by all the bigwigs in the textbook industry:  Houghton-Mifflin, McGraw-Hill, Pearson, etc.  We all got sample versions of the textbooks as well as supplemental materials that the companies offered.  Our mission was simple:  To review all the information and to be ready to discuss which textbook we wanted the district to adopt by the time we met again in just under a month. 

I took this opportunity to review the textbooks as I saw this to be the most important part of the selection process.  Sure the bells and whistles of CDs and interactive websites were nice but I worked at a school of struggling readers.  I needed a textbook that was appropriate for their reading level.  Even as a first-year teacher, I knew that it was a lot easier to supplement material that was too easy rather than start with material that was too difficult and overwhelming.  I wanted a textbook that would be appropriate for my school, with the hopes that other teachers would agree with my reasoning and rationale.  I ended up ranking the books from one to seven based on what I thought would be best for my students.  

The meeting ended up being a total farce.  The more affluent schools dominated the conversation and advocated for the most challenging textbook.  This book was nearly five-hundred pages and read like an upper class high school text.  It was far and away the book I felt would be most inappropriate for my students.  I was in such disbelief about the book that was selected that I emailed the district social studies coordinator afterward to see if there was some kind of mistake.  Nope, there was not.  The district had officially purchased a book that my students could not use.  The affluent schools had their book of choice and used these books daily.  I had a classroom set of books that sat on my bookshelf for an entire academic year while I instead wrote simplified versions of text that was appropriate for my students.    

So, why didn't our school pick another book?  Easy.  The district bundles all books together to save money. What one school gets, they all get.  Textbook publishing is a multi-billion dollar a year industry.  Why have sixteen middle schools selecting seven different textbooks when you can have sixteen middle schools selecting one?  The district I taught in wasn't unique in this regard.  Districts throughout the country do the exact same thing.  One size fits all.  Everyone takes the same test, so these big districts should all have the same book, right?  However, as my earlier example in textbook analysis shows, this does the students a disservice.  Giving students a textbook they aren't prepared for also is a disservice to the students.  But, hey, if it saves a few bucks and the school was going to fail anyway, what does it matter?  

Flash forward five years to the creation of my course outline.  The course that required a textbook was a contemporary issues class that I had created from scratch.  It was driven heavily by current events and media awareness and so, because of that, there was no course textbook.  And yet, the state of California expected it from me.  The UC website would not let me leave it blank.  In order to appease the Golden State, I selected a book on media awareness that sounded like something a course like mine would have.  Yes, the state of California forced me to lie about my very own course.  But, why?  Why does the UC system expect every course to use a textbook?  

Herein lies one of the major problems of education today:  We are slaves to the textbook industry.  Why do you need a textbook to teach?  If you are a master of course material as your undergraduate or master's level training has provided for you, shouldn't you be able to teach your course as you see fit?  Why do you have to include the words of the editors from McGraw-Hill or Houghton-Mifflin?  What is it that they know about the course material that you don't?  If these books are written by teachers like myself, shouldn't I be just as capable to present the information to my own students without them having to use the words and ideas of somebody else?  

Once again, it all comes down to money.  In the UC's eyes, a course is not legitimate unless your school has forked over money to pay a major publishing corporation.  In order for the UC system to accept your course, you must prove that your school has the funds available to pay our friends at Mc-Graw Hill and Houghton-Mifflin.  Because obviously if you aren't using a textbook, your course cannot be real.  There is simply no way that you can create a course and then teach it using independent resources rather than material from a major publishing corporation.  As long as your school has fed the beast, the UC system sees no reason to question the content and material of your course.  Just tell us about your course and list your textbook and we'll be happy to approve it.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, I to this day, have yet to use a textbook for classroom instruction.