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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Fear and Loathing in the American Classroom

I recently received an email from an educator friend I'd met while I was consulting on the East Coast last year. Cara had been laid off as an administrator and eventually rehired at the end of the summer to teach middle school math. To say hers is a tough school is like saying Hitler was a bigot.  The neighborhood matches the school: just before school started, the owners of the mom and pop grocery store across the street were gunned down. Getting safely in and out of the building without incident is an accomplishment. Still, this seasoned teacher fights her way through every day to try to engage her students' attention, convince them that their studies are important, and teach them something, anything--without resources or cooperation. Her reward? Last week, her students loosened the lug nuts on her tires. She could have been killed just driving home.

I was shocked, but not surprised. Cara's situation is not so rare as you'd think.

I've always said that if I had to go through my first year of teaching again, I'd go stand in traffic and shut my eyes.  However, going into large urban school districts as a consultant over the last several years opened my eyes: my own teaching experience was a cakewalk. About four years ago, I was hired by an education management company to coach teachers in a new alternative high school they been asked to start in a northeastern US city on a "ten days onsite and two weeks online" rotation. The students were supposed to be "over-aged underachievers" whose education we would approach using real-world projects and technology. In selecting students, however, an assistant superintendent sent out a directive to his principals to send him the names of students "they didn't want in their buildings anymore." Granted, these students were both over-aged and underachievers, but they also had disciplinary files at least six inches thick, most were in gangs, and many had criminal records. Except for a few bright-eyed novices, teachers were selected from the district "left-overs": tenured teachers no one wanted, who'd been passed from building to building, but had never made it through a school year. They knew little about technology and less about project-based learning.

I flew in from Oregon during the last weeks of summer vacation.  Driving to the school my first day, I saw the city change from the familiar scenes of American prosperity, well-kept houses and boutique shopping, into a war zone: abandoned, burned out buildings, barred windows, and barbed wire. At the school, the administrative staff was working furiously on the schedule, trying to pin down the class lists against what they called the "dead list". I assumed this was a badly-named designation for the students who had dropped out or moved out of district. I was wrong. The kids on the dead list were actually dead: drug overdoses, gang killings, suicides. And there were enough of them that scheduling was affected.

Students had been promised that each of them would have their own laptop. These hadn't arrived yet--and wouldn't until October as it turned out--and the majority decided they would show when the computers did. Even with fewer than a hundred students, both security guards were out with injuries by the end of the first week.  Nothing worked in the building, there were no books, no science lab, an empty library, and the teachers were too afraid of the students to even force them to stay in their chairs. Except for the first year teachers, who did a valiant job, most teachers read the paper. Kids came and went as they pleased, wandering the halls and intimidating younger students who just wanted to use the bathrooms. I got to know their names: Jamal, Malachi, Shaneequa -- especially Shaneequa, because of the 7 girls who attended regularly, she was in trouble the most often. She was rude, full of attitude and gorgeous.

Letters to the editor were flowing in. People wondered why the resources dedicated to this school -- an abandoned elementary building and promised laptops -- didn't go the "the good kids." Attendance continued spotty until the cold weather came. Then students started to arrive because their homes weren't warm enough. We all staggered through the year together, though, celebrated small successes when they occurred. When spring came attendance went down and laptops disappeared.

I went  back to Oregon, generally disheartened. Over the summer I watched the city's newspaper online. There were more letters to the editor and articles about angry school board members. Like the students, I read the police report first to see who I knew. In August,  I read about some neighborhood kids finding a body in the crawl space under a house near the school. The next day, the body was identified. It was Shaneequa. She'd be on the dead list.

I didn't go back to that school. That's the problem with being a consultant. Projects come and go. You never know how the story ends. I worked with another similar school last year, though, also started by an education management company, this time for "non-traditional" students. Better attendance here, probably because it was made part of student parole agreements. The kids ditched their weapons in the shrubbery before school and picked them up again on the way home.  I was in the office with the principal when she learned that one of the few students she had hopes for had been arrested for shaking his baby too hard. It had died in the hospital over night.

No one talks about this enormous educational problem. Not educational associations, not newspapers and certainly not politicians. Or if they do, it falls under the wide umbrella of  "the achievement gap." Call the students what you will, "over-aged underachievers" or "non-traditional," the real label may be "hopeless." Without hope. That's the reason for what they do and don't. They know better than we do that what we're offering-- higher standards, accountability, data-driven decision making, whatever educational buzz word you care to name -- has nothing to do with them.  It's no secret in education that rigid curriculum, more and more testing, and disciplinary systems that focus on suspension and expulsion are not going to help anyone. The kids I'm talking about need something else. They are desperate, dangerous to themselves and others. They are angry, and anger is always a form of fear. If I were them I'd be afraid too.

I know there are many great schools and educators, wonderful parents and programs in every demographic. With committed leadership, community buy-in, parental involvement, specialized curriculum and lots of money, there have been successes. But their radiance masks education's dirty little secret: every knows, just as the kids do, that many schools are nothing more than holding tanks, overcrowded waiting rooms that lead to the penitentiary, the streets or the graveyard. We also know that "large urban" district is code for "inner city poverty." "Nontraditional student" is code for "failure." I don't think it's any accident that the schools I'm describing are populated largely by African American students, or that, just as in the days of Jim Crow, trouble-makers are doomed to failure or worse, and no one is even looking up.

Like organized religion, organized education has edged its way so far from what educators know to be true, what we believe in, that it has become a matter of form and convention as define by the ubiquitous standards that steal the power from teachers who think. But this is not just an educational problem. It doesn't start in school, and it doesn't stay there. The same thuggery and soullessness pervade society, from the mean streets to the corporate boardroom. There are varying degrees, but it's all one. This is a soul problem and a heart problem. And that's where the answer will be found.