|There's no substitute for a good home.|
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.