Thursday, December 13, 2012

Grading Schools, Grading Society?

I WAS GETTING MY HAIR CUT LAST SATURDAY and while waiting had time to read a good portion of the Cincinnati Enquirer. One story noted that President Obama’s “approval ratings” were going up. That’s good.  

I usually vote Democratic. 

There was a story about Joey Votto and how the Reds’ playoff loss stings. A third article focused on a missing bulldozer and driver down in Kentucky after his machine slid off a steep embankment into a coal slurry pond. That sounded a lot worse than losing a deciding fifth game to the Giants. 

I also had time to read two stories that touched on education. The headline on one read:  What Makes a Grade A School?” The other might not have looked like an education story; but considering the other it was:  

“Teen Inmate Seeks Parole in Resentencing.”

I suppose I could say, “Hell, I’m retired. Why do I care?” But it troubles me that in Ohio and elsewhere, politicians believe we can grade schools in simplistic ways. The school where I taught, Loveland Middle School, would doubtless earn high marks from the State of Ohio under the new system. (Rich, suburban district’s usually do.) I’m just not sure what that proves. We had our slice of dysfunctional families and messed up kids; but for the most part, I was seeing bright, motivated teens come through my door. 

So, how do you measure schools? Based on the dropout rate? We now have a system that says you do. I scratch my head on that one. Can a teacher make a kid drop out of school? A teen can join a gang and get in trouble with the law and drop out, as a result. A teen can get pregnant by mistake and drop out of school. A teen can get addicted to drugs and drop out. Is this the fault of the school? 

I once had a student (a really nice kid, too) who, by the time I had him in eighth grade, had piled up an incredible record of unnecessary absences. In seven years in the Loveland City Schools, John had racked up 452 missed days of class. 

That’s the equivalent of 2 1/2 years. So, do we grade the school in this situation, if John fails to make adequate yearly progress? The new system says we do. (I’m thinking we grade his parents. Or maybe we grade pediatricians!) If you’re not a teacher, you might believe kids like John are rare.  

You would be mistaken. 

A study recently for the Chicago Public Schools found that the “average” student was out of class 26 days each year. That means for every kid who shows up diligently and misses 1 or 2 or 4 days, you have another who misses 51, or 50, or 48. 

Try that at your job and see if the boss feels he deserves a failing grade based on your failure to appear for work 

I TAUGHT A LONG TIME. I KNOW there are crappy teachers. I understand that; and we need to do the best job possible to get them out of America’s classrooms. But grading schools is a shotgun approach and a stupid idea.  

I also understand that teachers must try to save every child. I think I only gave up on one kid out of the 5,000 I taught during my career. 

That doesn't mean it isn’t ten times harder to save some than to save others and nearly impossible to save some. Since I taught seventh and eighth grade, I saw girls come to school who were pregnant; and many ended up wrecking their educations. That wasn’t the fault of teachers. I remember a girl, so wasted on drugs that she shit herself in class, passed out, and left our building on a stretcher. I remember a young man who came to us after release from juvenile detention. At the time he had the longest criminal record of any teen in Hamilton County. And his chances for a quality education were hardly enhanced one afternoon when he told his science teacher he was going to kill her. 

So, what do our politicians decide to do to address these kinds of problems, which, to a greater or lesser extent, beset all schools? Um....grade schools. 

How does the other story fit in, you ask? The one about the teen seeking parole? It involves the case of Emily Ball, 14, when she was charged with involvement in the murder of another teen, Travis White, 17. At a hearing to discuss her fate (now that she has turned 18 and is old enough to go to an adult facility) her public defender, Amanda Mullins explained to the judge: 

“I’m not here to talk about a 14-year-old Emily Ball whose life was characterized by violence and chaos and extreme poverty. We are here today to talk about the 18-year-old Emily whose life is now filled with growth and progress and hope.

 “This is a girl that has had an unwavering hope that life has something better in store for her. You have the opportunity today to let her continue to grow, progress and hope.”

As a former teacher I notice that line about a girl whose life was characterized by violence and chaos and extreme poverty.” I worked in a good district but taught a few kids like that. My wife taught in a poor district and had to save all kinds of young kids like Emily Ball. 

Regardless, the prosecutor countered testimony in Ms. Ball's favor, calling retired Covington police Detective Mike McGuffey to the stand. Mullins had explained to the judge that while her client did lure White into ambush she left the scene before she knew what was going to happen.

McGuffey disagreed: 

“[He explained that] Emily left only after the ambush began and then returned three times to check on the progress. McGuffey knew this because Emily’s whereabouts was being tracked by an ankle monitor she was ordered to wear because she was a habitual truant.

 “He had never investigated a crime where someone was so severely beaten during his 26 years in law enforcement.

 “McGuffey recounted finding the ‘huge’ wrench, hammer and baseball bat used to kill Travis, whose body was stripped to his underwear, rolled into a red carpet and dumped along train tracks. Travis had been stabbed or hit more than 40 times. There were crude gang or satanic symbols carved into his chest. Cigarette burns were too plentiful to count.”

It’s a sad story, no matter what the judge might decide. But I read it like a former teacher. I wonder: “How is grading schools ever going to help these kind of kids, kids who absolutely need help the most?”


I DON’T KNOW THE ANSWER. I do know politicians and school reformers are ignoring this critical question.

Saving Emily was never going to be easy?
How do we justify grading schools if they fail to do it?

P. S. Think this sort of case is rare? Think that schools can be tasked with saving every single child? Google “teen murders” and start asking yourself how.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for shedding light on this. I teach 6th grade and we've had one student who has been absent 35 times this year so far, and we've only been in school for 75 days! This individual is only now going through the truancy process. He has no clue what is going on in school. In fact, he showed up one day and it just so happened to be the day the social studies teacher gave his end-of-unit test. The social studies teacher asked him if he knew what the test was on, and the young man couldn't answer him. This child didn't even know what civilization they just learned about.