Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Cliche of the Century -- Steve Sundquist

In his voter’s pamphlet statement, current Seattle school board president Steve Sundquist levels us with the most popular cliche of the educational ‘buzzosphere.’  He says, “My leadership and decision-making is guided by a simple, straight-forward question: What’s in the best interest of the students?

This loathsome, simplistic saying is worthy of being put to rest for good for several reasons.

First, it gives the person stating it an inflated image of purity and wisdom with regard to their motives and actions.  I mean, how can you go wrong with a person who bases all his decisions on the best interests of the students? 

Second, this kind of senseless drivel implies the person’s opponents and naysayers most certainly are not motivated by the interests of students.  Since I’m motivated by student interests, he’s saying, then my positions are inherently better than those who disagree with me.

Even more–and this is what I want to focus on–it gives the impression this person is so tuned in to everything involved in a massive conglomeration of students, parents, educators, administrators, politicians and taxpayers that they can sift it all out and consistently determine and act upon what they know is best. 

It’s saying the answers are more obvious than they are, and it’s everything that is wrong with most any kind of slogan.

So, I put it to you, what is in the best interest of students?  And further, what is a school board member able to do about it?

Tackling the Cliche
If I had to state the best interests of students (a foolish notion, as you’ll see), I would say something like this:

To have every opportunity made available to them so as to maximize the potential benefits of their education.

Now, just like the slogans and the cliches, mission statements like this have their place.  But also just like the others, these statements mean very little until you apply them to a specific situation. Sundquist calls this question “simple” and “straight-forward.”  Oh really.

Let’s look at a common hypothetical scenario, and consider the how simple it is to determine the “best interests” of those involved:

“Barry”
Barry was placed in special education in first grade.  He was too “rowdy,” and his teacher wasn’t able to handle his behavior and still manage the other 28 kids in her class.  So even though he had no cognitive disabilities, he was nevertheless classified as having a “behavioral disability,” and was segregated from the mainstream classes. 

Now, seven years later in middle school, Barry has continued to show his cognitive ability on various standardized tests, so the teachers decide to send him back to the mainstream.  But, since he’s been out of the normal educational progression of study, he’s way behind in every subject.  He doesn’t know basic information the rest of the students take for granted, like the capital of the state.  His special education classes spent most of their time trying to teach him to manage his behavior, and little on actually educating him.  So now, he knows very little, even though it appears his mind is capable of learning quite rapidly. 

He gets put in a math class, but his inability to handle the basic arithmetic causes him to act out, and he disrupts the learning of the other students.  The teacher asks for him to be sent back to special education, because his behavior prevents the other students from learning.  Thus, Barry reaches his senior year knowing very little of value.  He doesn’t graduate, can’t get a job, and ends up dependent on the system for life. 

Lessons from “Barry”
Barry represents all kinds of students we encounter as high school teachers.  No skills, no basic knowledge, and no sense of how to conduct themselves in a scholastic environment.  They come to us totally unable to succeed in our buildings. 

So, what is in Barry’s best interests?  Was this all his first grade teacher’s fault for putting him in special ed?  You may think that’s the question I’m going to ask.  But my question is, what’s in the best interests of all the other students? 

Is a teacher right to remove Barry from the class so the other 28 students can maximize their educational opportunities?  Or should he be kept in there, even in first grade, to the detriment of the others?  Or, is this a false choice?  Can a classroom aide be brought in to work specifically with Barry so he can still learn, and hopefully help him develop his behavioral skills while still growing his academic ones? 

Do you see why Sundquist’s cliche is less than worthless?  There is no “simple” answer to these questions.  Every answer carries considerable cost, both monetary and systemic.  Lots of people have to be involved.  Meetings.  Paperwork.  State and federal regulations kick in.  Everything has to documented. 

Can we afford an aide for just one student?  Is it right to devote so many resources to so few students?  Or, if we can’t, is it right to pull him out at so young an age?  Why can’t he still learn even in the special education class? 

All good questions.  None have easy answers.  I had a friend when I was in high school who spent most of his elementary years in special education.  His skills were very low.  And even then, in my own high school mind, I wondered if they were low because of his natural abilities, or because he had been put in these “special” classes and given a label. 

“Oh,” you say.  “So the answer is to improve special education in the elementary grades.”  To that I say, have at it and good luck.  That’s an uncracked nut of the first order.

Besides, that’s not the point.  My only point is this: Education is filled, dominated, overflowing with scenarios where the “interests of the student” are very far from clear.  Is it better to suspend and expel, or to punish some other way?  Is this curriculum best, or is it that one?  Is the same one best for all students?  Can one standardized test accurately report the learning of all students?  Is education a one-size-fits-all endeavor?  Even more, because education ultimately depends on the student, at what point have we as teachers given all the opportunity we can?

When you really start to think about it, every student has their own needs, and sometimes, the needs of some students will directly conflict with the needs of others.  Sometimes, there are no easy answers.  Put all the struggling students in the same classes as those who excel, and you might bring up the struggling ones.  But you’ll slow down the high-achievers.  Or, put them in separate classes, and now you have a ‘class’ system within your school, but you can better address the needs of the different types of students. Which system is better?  We’ve used both at my school in ten years.  The jury is perpetually out.

Students With No Interests
I believe one of the failings of the system is that it takes too long to admit the inevitable–some students will not graduate, no matter how hard we try to help them.

Some students don’t want help.  Some don’t know how to receive it.  Some have decided by high school they want a life of crime, or a life of apathy, and that anything involving work or someone else’s authority isn’t going to fly with them.  Some are too afraid to risk failure, and so they never succeed.

This is a small number of students, to be sure.  But I remind you of this question: How many resources should be devoted to so few students?  When 80% of students can consistently pass standardized tests, should we fret and worry more about the 20% who haven’t, or should we concern ourselves more with helping the 80% be better prepared for what’s next?  Can we do both well, considering our resources?

After all, life is not about taking tests.  At some point, you have to actually do something.  Could our resources be better allocated to broaden the opportunities for these students, rather than helping those who by ninth grade have already made it pretty clear school isn’t high on their list? 

At my school, in ninth grade, you can pretty much point out within two weeks some students who aren’t going to make it.  It’s not difficult.  Now, am I saying to just give up on them?  Not necessarily, but let me ask a question in response: If we “give up” on them after one month in ninth grade, or in the middle of their junior year when they finally get expelled, is there any difference in the long run?  Think about that.

Do you know how much money gets spent allowing students to retake courses, to start at new schools, to go through all the intervention, support, disciplinary, counseling, and psychological services available to them?  Billions of dollars, nationwide.  Billions.  And we spend gobs more on them as adults.

The Cost of Retaking Courses
Think of it this way: Suppose you have 300 students in Algebra 1.  If 33% of them fail Algebra 1, what happens next year?  You have 300 new students taking Algebra 1, and in addition you have 100 students retaking it.  With 400 students, you now need at least three (preferably four) new sections of Algebra 1.

Who’s going to teach them?  We either have to offer fewer sections of upper level math courses, or we have to hire a new teacher.  So, we either shortchange the students who move on by offering them fewer choices (fewer...that’s less opportunity–definitely not in their interests), or we have to spend more money to hire more teachers.  Or, we can just let those who failed be done (not really in their interests either...).

The next year, you have 300 new Algebra 1 students again, but you also have 100 retaking it from the last group, and another 30 retaking it now for the second time.  With 430 total, now you need yet another section, and the problem compounds. 

This is not an exaggeration.  At our school, we now have more math teachers than any other subject area, and we have students who have taken the same class three times.  How do we stop this cycle before it swallows the whole math department? 

Some may ask, “Why are so many students failing?  Maybe you have ineffective teachers.”  Well then, you come and try it.  Then you’ll stop making dumb statements like that.  At least we’re holding to the standards and not just passing them along.  (High expectations often means more kids will fail, not fewer).

Again, the point is, what is in the best interests of these students?  Are we really serving their interests by letting them retake courses over and over, sapping the system of resources?  What’s the answer to this problem?  Should we not allow retakes at all?  One and done? 

Buzzword-Certified
I’m not here to deliver the answers to most of these questions. 

My only point is, anyone who oversimplifies education with statements like “I base my decisions on the best interests of the students” is either too ignorant to be qualified for a school board position, or is talking down to his audience, knowing they will flock to him because his hollow statement sounds so great, but in reality means absolutely nothing.  He’s a buzzword-certified member of the PeWKoB (People who Know Better).

Me? I’d vote for the other guy. (Or gal, in this case...)

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