Saturday, July 9, 2016

The Limited Efficacy of "School Reform:" Drugs

I don’t know about anyone else; but I often find myself thinking that “school reform” fails for the most basic reason. 

It fails because school isn’t the place where many problems in schools take root.

(See also: absenteeism.)

Today the focus is drugs, on the catastrophic damage done to hundreds of thousands of children every day in homes.

I learned a bitter lesson back in 1976, as a new teacher. One day, Carolyn (all names changed), a young lady in my second bell class, was missing. I had been working with her, as best I could, but wasn’t having much success. She was chronically absent, exhausted if she made it to school, and repeatedly caused trouble for me and for her peers. On this particular morning she wasn’t in history at all.

During third bell a colleague filled in the outlines of a tragic tale. Carolyn had ingested some illegal substance on the way to school. In first period Language Arts her speech slurred. Her teacher grew alarmed, but before she could act, Carolyn began wobbling in her seat. Suddenly, her bodily functions failed. She soiled herself and toppled from her chair. The school nurse was summoned, then the Life Squad, and a terribly troubled 14-year-old left school strapped to a stretcher.

Carolyn survived that day—only to die four years later—but even then I had to wonder. What could we, as educators, do to help such young people? 

Like most educators, I never came up with a satisfactory answer.

Of course, I did everything I could. I gave any student who was doing poorly as many chances as possible to raise their grades. I sacrificed a thousand lunches to talk to teens in dire need of counseling of any kind. I provided my home phone number to parents and students who wanted to call. 

After spending a good part of one evening talking to parents I recorded these results in a diary I keep:

Spent 1½ hours on phone tonight with five parents. Bill -----’s mom has him in AA three nights a week and says he’s rated chemically dependent. (Cheryl, his sister, is also in the program on a limited basis.) Bill’s dad started him drinking at six—Bill got into his father’s cocaine. She says Walt and Rick [two other eighth graders] are dealing.

I retired in 2008. But last summer, waiting a turn at the barbershop, I had another one of those flashes when it seemed obvious the foundation of the argument for “school reform” rested in quicksand. A front page story in the Cincinnati Enquirer caught my eye. A pretty young woman, Samantha Gibson, 26, had just had her day in court. Her offense was minor, this time, so Gibson was going home. But she outlined her problems for a reporter. “I can’t get through the day without heroin,” she admitted.

Then, the detail that really hit hard: Gibson was the mother of three young kids.

According to the Enquirer, “more than 13,000 heroin users spent time in Greater Cincinnati jails [in 2014].” Not all were parents, but far too many were. Some had been arrested after leaving their children “alone at home or in cars because they were out trying to buy heroin.” The Enquirer went on to explain that there were medication-assisted treatment programs available. Unfortunately, all were costly and under optimal conditions only 50% to 65% of users got clean. 

Despite a stunning rise in overdose deaths, county governments in Ohio and other states had been cutting budget since 2008. Treatment was expensive and counties “rarely have millions of dollars available to pay for it.” In-patient programs, most expensive and successful of all, were prohibitively costly. Treatment, one expert told reporters, “is medical first;” but there weren’t enough doctors willing to help. Gibson tried to find care in 2014 but all the programs had long waiting lists.

Now a reporter watched the young mother as she was released. He followed as Gibson left the building—saw her light a cigarette—dig in a purse—pull out $25.

“That’s all I have to my name,” she admitted. She might just as well have added: “So, my poor children are doomed.”

I was fortunate to teach for thirty-three years and loved working with kids. Still, I saw how drugs ruined young lives. I remember asking Joey what his father was like. Joey and I had a good relationship; but he struggled a little in school. “My dad is a useless meth head,” he replied with a smile; and then I understood why Joey might not always focus on history. I remember Sam, too, who turned it around in seventh grade, partly with help from Julie Cohen,a dedicated student teacher. Only Sam didn’t stay turned around. He died three years later of a drug overdose, choking in his own vomit.

Yet, in those same years, Congress was promising every child would be proficient in reading and math. I kept reading stories about “dropout factories” and listening to cable news talk about “failing American schools.”

Across the nation, by 2015, one baby was born every hour, suffering from opiate withdrawal. That’s 8,760 newborns per year, with average cost of a hospital stay $53,400. USA Today referred to children “born into suffering,” but school reformers and politicians never blinked. They kept faulting educators for not undoing the damage done by too many parents, to too many kids, in too many homes.

Time and again, I could only shake my head. I read of a Pennsylvania mother, 22-year-old Sarah Kessler, who died of an overdose in her apartment. Before she was found her 9-month-old son starved to death.

I read about gang violence in Chicago, tied to the drug trade. I read about Tyshawn Lee, a 9-year-old boy, lured into an alley and gunned down during a battle over turf. I read that dozens of young people in that city were shot and killed every year. 

Then, in January 2016, I read that MaryAnn and Wesley Landers brought an infant daughter to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital for care. They left an older child at home. What they didn’t leave was their heroin stash. Shortly after their daughter was operated on mom and dad decided to shoot up in the hospital room. A nurse discovered them sprawled on the linoleum at 11:34 a. m., but by then MaryAnn was dead.

I read these stories and switched on the news and heard experts insist “school reform”  was key to curing our nation’s ills. Listening to experts, I almost imagined educators wielded magic wands. But I taught for years. 

I knew they didn’t.

I certainly dont claim to have the answers. I know what I’d be saying if I were U. S. Secretary of Education, however. I’d be arguing we’d should take the money wasted on standardized tests and pour it into expanded drug counseling and treatment for adult users and kids.

I’d argue that every school should have more counseling and psychological services for parents and children.

I’d make the case that every school should have a nurse practitioner on site and a clinic where young people could get quality care.

I’d urge lawmakers to push for reform and stop jailing non-violent drug offenders. The annual cost of keeping one inmate in federal prison comes to $30.619.85 per year. I’d let non-violent prisoners out.

I’d use the money saved to target problems that effect youth, including the fact 2.7 million kids  have one or both parents behind bars.

I’d tell school reformers to stop blaming society’s ills on educators and schools. I’d make it clear that America’s schools aren’t failing at all. 

Too often they’re overwhelmed.

There's no school reform there there.

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