Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Vouchers, Charter Schools and Terrible Parents

There's no substitute for a good home.
THERE SEEMS TO BE A GENERAL CONSENSUS abroad in America today that schools are failing and our economy is sinking...and...well...it's all the teachers' fault. 

If you have any doubt, watch any interview by the self-righteous Michelle Rhee. Rent the incredibly simplistic movie, Waiting for Superman. Or pick up a copy of Steven Brill's book, Class Warfare:  Inside the Fight to Fix America's Schools

You know Brill knows how to fix America's  schools.  He's a lawyer.

So:  if we're going to fix schools what do we do first?  Some people say, "Take away tenure from teachers." (I think Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity and pretty much everyone at Fox News want to burn unionized teachers at the stake.)  Let's give parents vouchers. Let them flee the failing public schools! Create more charter schools!  And draw up all kinds of standardized tests, tie teacher pay to scores, and watch the magical transformation begin.

I guess I'm not as smart as Rhee or Brill; but I did spend 33 years in a classroom, vs. 3 for Rhee and 0 for Brill. So, I've seen the impact parents have on kids. Unlike Brill, I'm not naive enough to believe you can fix schools until you fix humanity.

I know what good teachers can do--and for decades tried to do all the good I could. But maybe what we really need in this country are Parent Vouchers. You want equal opportunity for children? Let them have vouchers to escape crappy homes. Think about the expression:  “Like father, like son.”  What if the father is a son-of-bitch?

When I was new to the classroom, I remember our superintendent, Dr. Charles Waple, telling a story from his early days in education. He was a sixth grade teacher at the time. One evening he called to acquaint a father with problems he was having in class with his son. The boy was not completing his work and Waple hoped this could be addressed at home. The voice on the other end replied gruffly, “I’ll take care of it.”

The next day the boy came to class sobbing. Dad took care of it, alright. 

He shot the boy’s dog.

For three decades, I stood at the front of a classroom and gave it my best shot. I happened to work in a very good district (Loveland City Schools); and most parents were very good. The bad ones could be really bad, though.

YOU HAD ALL KINDS OF PROBLEMS IN THE HOME--and tried to mitigate the damage--and save everyone you could. Unfortunately, you couldn't save them all. I remember a great educator, Paula Dupuy, a counselor for our junior high (we became a middle school later). She tried to save Phil, the last of the Norman children to come through our doors; but Mr. and Mrs.Norman didn't believe getting to school was a priority. Phil missed 51.5 days in a single semester, even though we took mom and dad to court four different times and even with Ms. Dupuy driving out to the home many mornings to pick the boy up. It was a kind of Norman family tradition. Every member of the family missed at least fifty days every year and Phil's oldest brother once stayed home 140 days in a single year. 

How about a voucher for Bobby? Bobby doesn’t live with his mother. He doesn’t live with his father. He lives with his grandmother. Bobby is, how shall we say this, the product of incest, and his parents are brother and sister. Bobby, we teachers know, is being raised by a grandmother. (Actually, he has only one.) And from what teachers can tell from dealing with the woman, granny is mentally ill. 

What about Joey? Joey is a C student—funny as hell. He and I get along great. Sometimes his work is done. Sometimes it isn’t. Some days all Joey has to offer is a smile. I keep on him and he takes any chiding with a grin. Joey isn’t the problem. 

Neither am I. 

I know the family is struggling financially. One day I ask Joey about his dad. He responds, “He’s a useless meth head.” 

He says this without rancor, because Joey is funny, but his words stick with me the rest of my career.

I could go on and on and on--every good teacher could--but two more examples should suffice. 

A friend of mine is a third grade teacher in another school district. Recently, a poor little eight-year-old came into her classroom and put his head down on his desk and just cried. He was tired, for one thing, and tired of being laughed at by other children, so my friend had to dig to get to the bottom of the story. It seems mom was a drunk, and he was up most of the previous night, listening to her argure first with neighbors and then police. So the boy hadn't slept much. After the police left, mom got it in mind that her boy needed a haircut.

So she shaved random patches into his head.

Like every good teacher in America, my friend did what she could to soften the blows dealt out by reality. But teachers aren't magicians and they don't have the luxury of standing on the sidelines like Rhee and Brill and preaching about what they would do to if they were actually in a classroom where saving every child, according to them, can be so easily done.

ARE VOUCHERS AND CHARTER SCHOOLS, then, really the answer? What says the poor girl in baggy clothes? She sits quietly in my class every day, hunched over her desk, long black curls falling in cascades to obscure her face. 

Over the years I pride myself on getting students involved. In this case, nothing works. I try questions which require “yes” or “no” answers. The girl won’t look me in the eye. Most days she seems in distress.

She appears friendless and alone and grades are poor. So we try engaging the parents. (Isn’t that the key to school reform?) I call home several times and say I’m worried, that their daughter seems depressed. They insist that everything is fine at home. She just doesn’t like school.

By end of first semester teachers are so worried we ask for a face-to-face meeting with mom and dad. The father is professionally dressed, articulate, and seems concerned. The mother is supportive. They want to help. We tell them the girl is suffering great emotional pain, almost surely in need of counseling. The parents thank us for our interest and say they will take this under consideration. When they stand to leave dad smiles and shakes hands all around. 

We call home periodically the rest of the year. Nothing helps. The girl is miserable and we meet with parents again in spring. (Again--we call them. They don't call us.) She just does pass seventh grade. 

The next year the school provides an aide to see if that might help. Eventually, the aide and the girl form a bond and she admits she is being sexually abused by her father and older brother. Dad gets arrested. The brother goes to juvenile detention. And if you’re any kind of teacher you kick yourself for not seeing this situation clearly.

SADLY, RHEE AND BRILL--and that idiotic movie--don't offer any kind of solutions to deal with these terrible realities.


  1. Thank you John, for this exquisite piece grunded on your experience. You and I know we're fighting with logic against a robotic opposition which is immune to logic. But it must be done as you have the creds in every respect and you were born to do this in your current writing career.

  2. This made me cry. Really cry. And I do not cry. There seems to be more outcry for abuses of animals than there are advocates for kids. I just want to take all these kids and I wish I could. Reading stories like this makes me think a person should be approved by some entity to have kids. But that's not the answer either.
    I remember learning the basics for living in middle school, I believe it was Maslow's hierarchy of needs and it has stuck with me. These kids might have food and shelter but every other need is simply wiped out so much that they would be better off with a homeless parent who loved them than the garbage they are living with.

  3. This is the Truth. Plain and simple. I can't help every kid, but I sure can try to be a safe place for few minutes in their day. Thank you for writing this little piece of Reality.

  4. 1) What constitutes a "good" parent?

    2) Under such definition, what do we make of the numerous cases we could find where kids of these "good" parents did poorly in school?

    3) Most any documentary is going to be simple and biased. It's how it draws an audience. "Waiting for Superman" certainly was no exception. Nor was "The Lottery". That being said, if Michelle Rhee is a fair target for her "charter school good, teacher union bad" stance, do we let Randi Weingarten off the hook for vaguely and overly simplistically directing the blame to "poverty"?

  5. It's funny how teaching is something you can delude yourself into thinking you're good at for three decades, all the while obviously failing and blaming parents because of the most salient, cherry-picked anecdotes. Some of us ACTUAL good teachers have seen our kids achieve in the face of all sorts of challenges, know that the majority of parents in any community deeply care about and want to help their kids succeed, and don't blame their failures as teachers on everyone but themselves. The failing salesman is great - his customers are the problem. The surgeon facing multiple malpractice suits is FANTASTIC - it's the damned patients that keep dying on him!

    Name one other profession we're you can get by year after year by shirking off responsibility. Even the well-intentioned can just plain suck, after all.

  6. The author stands by his position. Space limits the number of examples you can use in any blog post. It might interest Anonymous, above, to know that Hamilton County, Ohio, had 8500 cases of child abuse and neglect in one year. Do I "blame" parents? Some, yes, of course, I do. If the average kid in Chicago schools is absent 26 days, as was true in 2009, maybe parents are at fault. The post is simple enough: some parents are TERRIBLE. There is no reform plan for schools currently being floated to address that. JJV

  7. Didn't all those TERRIBLE, abusive parents receive their education in the same machine? This essay makes the argument, if we take it seriously, that our population, on the whole, is not able to make even the most basic decisions about caring for their own children. SO ANSWER THIS: Why can't compulsory education, after a century of experimentation, produce a population that is smart enough and benevolent enough to rear its own young?

    There is no answer to that question. It is past time to kick that establishment to the curb. It is a complete failure. Give parents back the responsibility that nature intended it to have, that she gave them an instinct to fulfill. Let nature take its course. It worked before public school was invented by tyrants. It can work again. That is, if you are not afraid of the diversity it will produce.

  8. Wow, where to start in response to the above? Now schools are responsible for abusive parents! For real? I guess cops are responsible for murderers. Or wait a minute, maybe we should go back to Adam and Eve. Public schools invented by tyrants??? Yep, nothing worse than trying to insure that every child can get an education.

    I admit: If the above respondent is a product of the public schools, we surely failed along the way.

  9. Lol. You can't answer the question! That is where your post needs to start if it is to respond to the other one and have a real dialog. Again, how is it that a century of compulsory education has produced a culture that is not smart or benevolent enough to raise their own children, to at least pick the school that their child should attend? For heaven sake, let parents choose schools for their own children. That isn't asking too much! That is the real issue. Stop trying to divert with nonsense and insults.

  10. Let me try this one more time, because maybe you really did not follow my point. It can happen.

    The premise of this article is that parents are the reason that public schools fail, and that parents are so bad that they should not have the ability or the right to make decisions about their children’s education. The author then relates a number of highly emotional, anecdotal stories to support that notion, and it is further put forward that the number of abusive parents is very high, so this, apparently, means that even the (very few) good parents are not to be trusted and must also abdicate their rights to make school choices.

    But you can’t have it both ways. If we are to concede that parents really are that pervasively bad, that it has come to the point that they really can’t even raise their own children or make basic decisions for their children, that they are mostly dangerous to children, then we must also admit that the school system has to have some culpability in allowing things to get that bad. Schools do help raise children, and they have had their hand on the cradle for decades.

    Our society does, in fact, ask itself if the penal system is responsible for making criminals, and we know that it is responsible at times. Do "police" make murders? We do ask that, and we are very wise to ask that. So it is also reasonable to ask what role the school system has in producing poor parents.

    Now, I would also make the point that the premise of this article is disingenuous anyway. It really doesn’t want to make that argument because it really doesn’t want to take that heat. We don’t have a society that is too dumb to parent. We have a society that is a bit lazy about it, to be honest (and why not when it can be done for them), but it probably isn’t predominately abusive or dangerous to its children, and parents are able to make intelligent choices if they are any choices.

    The real point of the article is to emotionalize and confuse the argument so that parent choice is denied. That is the goal of the article, plain and simple.

  11. Alas, one of us is kicking a dead mule and the mule is not going to rise. There is nothing in my post that indicates parents are pervasively bad. There is nothing to indicate in my post (nor do I believe from my experience) that more than a minority of parents are truly bad. My point, which any good teacher could make, is that the really bad parents send us children in schools with really severe problems.

    I don't know how a person with any feelings for children could not find this an "emotional" issue. I stand absolutely behind the last sentence of my original posting, which is my main point.

    Indeed, if it helps, I will clarify: in my 33 years of experience in a classroom, dealing with 5,000 teens and their parents, I found (I would estimate) at least 90% of those parents to be a pleasure to deal with; and I couldn't name 10 kids in all those years I didn't like. But go behind the curtain and take a good long look, and almost every child with severe problems in the school started off with severe problems in the home.

    My most recent post continues the same theme.