Friday, July 8, 2011

Casey Anthony and the Hollow Promise of "School Reform"

I've been tinkering with this post today because one of my former students, whose judgment I tend to respect, said he thought it didn't make any sense.

Meanwhile, a supporter of Senate Bill 5 saw the title and weighed in with his opinion on Facebook.  I don't think he actually read the post, but he was mad enough to call me a "union thug."

Actuallly, I'm just a harmless blogger who often sees current events through the lens of a former public school teacher.  That was true again this week with the acquittal of Casey Anthony on charges she murdered her daughter, Caylee,.  For those who followed the trial closely on television, the jury's decision sparked an explosion of outrage.  For those who did not, let's just say that Casey left the family home in Florida on June 16, 2008, with Caylee, then nearly three, in tow and did not return for 31 days.

When she did Caylee was nowhere to be found and mom claimed the toddler had been abducted by a nanny; but it soon turned out that the "nanny" did not exist. 

It was the start of a bizarre case and bizarre trial and at the end all we know for sure is that a little girl is dead, her body found several months later with duct tape covering the mouth, decomposing in a trash bag by the side of a road, with a Winnie the Pooh blanket she loved nearby.

As a writer interested primarily in education--in finding ways to help all kids--in no way do I mean to trivialize the death of this young child.  It's a tragedy that stands alone.  And yet, from a retired teacher's point of view, this kind of tragedy comes as no surprise. 

For years we've been hearing about the failure of America's public schools, about the failure of public school teachers--as if bad teachers are the biggest, or even the only problem, in our schools.  So what we get are all kinds of experts talking about standardized tests, as if we can TEST our way to some perfect world, where all parents care and all kids get a wonderful educaton.  You don't have to be a public school teacher to know this:  but if you are you know there are a lot of terrible parents out there and they send us almost all the kids who struggle in the public schools.

These days, the most vociferous critics love to trot out this old quote from George Bernard Shaw:

“He who can, does. He who cannot teaches.”

Unfortunately, no one ever seems to remember this quote, also from Shaw, whose father was a raging alcoholic:

“Parentage is a very important profession; but no test of fitness for it is ever imposed in the interest of children.”

You can find shocking examples like the Anthony case any time you want.  When I was bicycling recently across Maine, the local papers were filled with details of the murder of Amy Lake and her two young kids.  The triggerman was Amy's estranged husband, the youngster's crazy dad. 

Maybe what Shaw should have said is, "He who can, produces sperm." 

That's the real problem.  That's the problem we need to consider:  that the worst members of the human race still produce sperm and eggs.  What's the "school reform" plan in the news today designed to addresses that fact?

Sure, there are bad teachers out there.  And we need to get rid of as many as we can, and do it as fast as we can.

The problem, though, when reformers talk about "fixing" schools, when Congress passes a law that promises every child will be proficient in reading and math by 2014, when Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says "it's all about the talent," meaning that education reform all boils down to the man or woman at the front of the class,  is that we refuse to look the Casey Anthony's of the world squarely in the face.

We don't pay enough attention to their kids until it's already a month or more too late.  We ignore the children who suffer, day in, day out, in homes with awful moms and dads.  Had Caylee lived long enough to enter kindergarten her problems would have gone far beyond crayons and glue and standardized testing would not have been the cure..

Casey Anthony is not the aberration many we might care to imagine.  Hundreds of American parents kill their children every year.  Many hundreds of thousands more abuse their sons and daughters regularly.  I spoke to a Hamilton County child welfare worker not long ago and asked how many cases of child abuse and neglect his agency handled in a typical year.

Eight thousand, five hundred cases in one Ohio county in one twelve-month stretch.

As someone who tried to help every child I ever taught or met, I keep wondering when we're going to have a "school reform" plan designed to really help these kids.  Tying teacher pay to test scores won't do it.  Certainly, increasing the number of vouchers the State of Ohio will grant won't do the trick.  What do schools do--what do we as a society do--when PARENTS don't really care?  That's the "school reform" questions that bothers me.

And it bothers me every day.

For far too many children problems start long before they enter kindergarten.  In far too many cases problems begin while the child is still "safe" in the womb.  In April a series of articles in the New York Times highlighted growing prescription drug abuse nationwide.  One story focused on Portsmouth, Ohio and Scioto County, where some of the highest rates of overdoses in the state can be found.  There nearly 1 in 10 babies born last year tested positive for drugs.

As the Times explained, "The pattern playing out here bears an eerie resemblence to some blighted cities of the 1980s; a generation of young people who were raised by their grandparents because their parents were addicts, and now they are addicts themselves." 

Nina Mannering was one.  At age 29, she was having trouble raising her 8-year-old daughter.  She tried to kick her habit and entered a counseling program but was told to leave after her boyfriend brought her pills.  In January 2010, while living with an older man, a 65-year-old veteran who had access to the kind of prescriptions she craved, both were murdered by another addict who broke into the home looking for their stash of pills.

At some point, our leaders have to wake up and realize that nothing they're now proscribing to fix the problems "in" our schools is ever going to make much difference, not until someone comes up with a standardized test to administer to moms and dads.

You could wave your magic wand today, and if you could make all the bad teachers in the world go away, tomorrow you'd still have 80% of the worst problems we see now in our schools.

1 comment:

  1. wow. so true and so sad. The town next to me in NH was listed as one of the top five in the US for public education, and the principal was almost lynched for saying that one of the reasons they succeed is better quality parents and families that care about their kids and their education. And feed them breakfast. Those of us who care about our kids have to truly care about the other kids too or it all fails. Big question is How?