Posted by: Jim E | April 25, 2011

Schools…Good…Bad…and I Just Don’t Know…

Let me say, sorry about this…it is more an editorial than anything, I guess, and there is more to say…that may come later…so, no flowers or weather report…here goes…I have been retired from my job as principal for over 10 years now…and in educational terms, that is an eternity…kind of like politics, 6 months is a lifetime…so many things can and do happen to change things…I remember one year someone on our administrative team left for a few months…we would talk from time to time and already even after a few weeks, things had changed enough that what we talked about didn’t match up with the way it  was “now”…and after a few months, there was major catching up to do…

When people talk to me like I know what is going on after 10 years, I know I don’t have a clue…now you may ask, do the principles of teaching or learning change that much???…no, they don’t…it still takes a willing and eager student and a dedicated teacher to make that connection for learning to take place…so many of the “changes” that I would need to catch up on would have nothing to do with actual learning…my job as a principal was to hire the most qualified and student oriented teacher and to make the school a place where teachers could teach and students could learn…and that kind of place needed to have discipline before achievement could take place…it is a tough job…more than full time to get that to happen…

And we were successful in doing that for the most part…we developed a “culture” in our school…one “Where teachers could teach”, meaning the building was “managed” so we had discipline, not so rigorous that kids couldn’t be kids and enjoy school but it was going to be run and managed according to the “culture” we wanted, “so teachers could teach”…and a “culture”, “Where students could learn”, meaning we meant business about learning…that’s what students were there for…and we expected teachers to teach content and students to learn that content…from the first day…there was never any question why students were attending our school…by teachers, students or parents…because you can’t have achievement without discipline…

The “changes” then are all the other add-ons that come with the education business…they mostly get in the way of that connection between teachers and students…so when I hear over and over that education is failing students…I have to say to myself, “Where?”…do you mean intercity Detroit, or Chicago, or New York, or Minneapolis, or Little Rock…then I would say, “That may be right to an extent.”…they continue to fail because of all the “add ons” that keep coming…”New Ideas” that keep confusing what students and teachers are suppose to be doing…you can go to any large school website and be convinced that nothing is really going on there by the amount and type of “words” they use in describing their curriculum and schools…hidden meanings about what they are doing…and saying nothing about the basics of what kids need…

So can kids get a quality education in an urban setting today?…of course they can…but it is a “pig in a poke”…in other words, if you are lucky enough to know what is important and see what to avoid…and how much you are going to invest in the education of your student…here in Little Rock in even the worst schools…where discipline is questionable…if a student gets in a certain level of course selection…upper level: math, science, history/social studies, English, etc…if that is the path selected, then the student will be with others who “want” to learn…and separated from those who are not interested and who’s behavior is tolerated for some misguided social/political reasons…the school for the most part may be failing…but there is that segment that will always do well because they are almost in a parallel universe within the same walls…and if they can stay away from some of the violence and other negative behaviors…they will do well…awful isn’t it???…but it is true…

The problem is, there are so many who don’t know what to do…for example, when the “school” tells you that “your” student has tested to be in general science rather than biology…”Hold on”…”Red Flags”…if you are willing to invest in your student and have a son/daughter who is willing to “work hard”, and even get a lower grade…then you need to push them into biology rather than the lower science…it will make all the difference to keep them away from those who either don’t want to learn or are there to make trouble…and also from teachers, who are so beat down by the system that they just “go along”…because teachers are like everyone else…if they have students who want to learn, they are excited to teach and will do even more than they are required to do…because learning is exciting…

Boring isn’t it???…this is the reason why comparing urban versus suburban schools is so stark…establishing a culture of learning is hard to do…especially when the people running the districts are way off base in what that culture should be…and why superintendent after superintendent in school districts change every few years, leave behind all the human debris and move on somewhere else to do the same…when I read again about “educational consultants” coming into a school district…in this case it was a large city system…and the superintendent has to come up with another “plan” for improvement…the latest in a never-ending series of improvement plans by different administrations, over 20 or 30 years…and it will fail like all the others because it is based on the same flawed ideas…that have never worked…and this superintendent will move on like all the others…and the human debris will pile up for another generation…

Now you may say, “You are a cynical jerk.”…maybe I am…but there are schools that are successful…inner city schools???…Oh, I’m sure there are some schools within any large city that are doing well…and individual teachers doing great things too…so there is hope…many suburban schools are doing a good job…some charter schools…and many private schools too…it is mostly fighting off the peripherals and get down to the basics of learning…and it takes strong leadership to make that happen…leadership that will stand up to all the pressures that come down on all schools…most of these large city districts have been run by the same politics for 50 years or more…and it is the reason why there are so many home-schooling or in private schools today…so they can get rid of all the extraneous stuff and get down to learning…is there hope?…well, it is hard to see but we have to have hope if it is ever to change…when parents want change and they can’t or won’t send their kids to private school or want home school them…then maybe things may change…but when social/political issues take precedence over achievement…that will never happen…

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