April 3, 2011

A #'s Game

Through the recent Friday Fish Frys at church and a new work out class I'm taking, I've had the opportunity to meet some new people. With introductions comes the inevitable question of, "So, what do you do?" The reaction to my answer of, "I teach" (in any variation of the straightforward to highly detailed), is always interesting to me. It says a lot about the person's personality, I think. Eyes wide, surprise, slight grimace of the mouth- that tells me the person doesn't think too highly of the profession, or was under the impression I was more suited for the career of under water basket weaver (it requires little conversation- something that I'm not too good at with strangers). If they honestly smile, nod and their eyes light up, I can tell they have at least some positive connotation related to the word 'teaching.' Whatever the reaction, it is ALWAYS followed by the seemingly simple query of, "Oh, do you enjoy it?"
What other profession of profession would get that reaction, every single time? Only one as complicated and contentious as teaching. As I said before, it's deceptively simple, for in fact, it is quite a hard question to answer. Add onto that my lack of witty retorts and you've got the simple, ready made response that I always seem to cough up before giving it too much thought, "Oh yes, very much. I love teaching." Sometimes I add, "It's hard sometimes, but the kids are worth it," or, "Well, there are a lot of problems, but in the end, I feel very satisfied as a teacher." Gross generalizations that gloss over the truth in order to keep the conversation rolling. I make the mistake every time of assuming the person is just asking to be polite, that they really don't want to know, and that my discomfort with the revelation to a stranger of personal details of one's life is shared by all. By thinking this emotionally constipated thought, I am sure I have missed many opportunities to start up a real dialogue and inform people of the true situation of education today as witnessed on the front lines. This blog aims to remedy that. For all of you that I have never really informed of my situation here in St. Louis, prepare to be educated...
It's really a numbers game that starts simple and gets complicated quickly. These stats may be a few years old, but they're what I've got. Let's begin with the student population of St. Louis Public Schools (hereafter known as SLPS. If you are an acronym fanatic, I suggest joining the education system. We're on a time crunch, we've got to shorten all our BS to get it to fit). The SLPS district is 24,000 students strong and shrinking by the year. Got it? OK, moving on. The state has set a goal for elementary and middle schools to achieve 51% mastery on all Communication Arts (CA) MAP (Missouri Assessment Program- given from grade 3 through 8th) tests and 45% mastery on all Math MAP tests. OK...WAIT A MINUTE...
51 and 45%???? THAT'S IT?!?!?!? In case you missed it among the acronyms, the state only expects half of its students to get a proficient or advanced score on an accredited test. And that's only in English and Math, forget about science and social studies and every other thing that actually matters. Oh wait, it gets better...Only four middle and elementary schools in the entire city of St. Louis actually met this goal in 2008. FOUR. Out of about 65 (depending on the year, many schools have been closed or have been restructured into charter schools and the like). To really bring this home, let me give you the number of students in my sixth grade class who achieved mastery on the CA MAP last year- 29%. And this is in a classroom in a good school (relative to St. Louis) I like to think of as safe, productive, well maintained and full of hearty, hands-on learning, mostly because I'm in charge of it. AND I actually raised this score over 5% from the previous year, though I still think of that number as my own personal failure to myself, my students and the world at large. Can you imagine what the scores were in a classroom that lacked rigor, management and support?
This numbers game becomes a little bit more complicated after this because the road forks in many different directions, depending on your perspective. I personally think education is too important and complicated of an issue to fit into any political box, and statistics can be twisted to prove anybody's point (72% of all statistics are made up on the spot, including that one). I mean, there are so many factors that go into the data that it's important not to think of the numbers as the end-all-be-all tellers of truth. What about the writers of the standardized test? Or the health of the children taking it? Or the teachers who fudged the scores? Or the overlooked undesirable numbers that you only learn about if your deep, deep, deep in the system (many that have to do with race and special ed)? Or the fact that the test is shortened each year because there is not enough money to pay people to grade the constructed responses? Everybody has an agenda, especially the politicians (governmental or school board) who tote these numbers around and throw them in the faces of the opposition when it suits them, and hide them when it doesn't. Education can't be about personal gain or adult professions- it MUST be about the children and their futures.
Like this one. See his face? He's not just a statistic. 
He is a living breathing, wonderful young student, destined for...
Well, the odds are stacked up against him, but I will never give up hope that he is destined for greatness.
The fact that he's reading Captain Underpants just proves he's a kid. Who likes toilet humor. 
 
So...what happens to this student population once they move on to high school (the majority of which earned a basic or below basic on a standardized test)? In St. Louis, 60% will graduate from high school. Only half of that 60% will go on to a four year college. I don't know how many actually graduate from those higher education institutions. I have heard from many high school teachers of my acquaintance that their administration refuses to allow them to fail seniors, squeaking them by on just barely D's so that they can have their graduation day and inflate that graduation number, furthering that shockingly low 30% statistic of college bound St. Louis alumni. Of the students who graduate, how many are actually prepared for the professional world and life outside of school? And of the students who graduate at the top of their class, do they realize that the best public education our country has to offer is still only 23rd in the world?
Will it shock you further to know that St. Louis is far from the worst public school district in our nation? Or are you all shocked out? I often find myself walking about in a bit of a daze if I think about it too much, and it's taken me almost two years to be able to really process all of this information and relate it to my own personal experience. This is what Teach For America calls the Achievement Gap (often shortened to AG or Ach Gap to save time. We talk about it A LOT). Now you have a taste of the uplifting data shown and pounded into a TFA corps member's head every time we have the opportunity to meet together, as we did today in what is called 'Professional Saturday,' the inspiration of this post. It is hard to see the silver lining in all these depressingly low scores, but we are told to "Go make a difference!" despite the weight of such knowledge. We are told to "Be the change we want to see in the world" without real straight-forward instructions, because hey, if it were a simple problem, it would have been solved by now. I'll spare you the list of school politics, curriculum, funding, parental support, poverty, teacher preparation and pay and who knows what else goes into why our school system looks the way it does today, but believe me when I say it makes a tangled problem even more hard to understand.
I certainly don't have the answers, but I do know what I know. And what I know is this- I can teach the students I have to the best of my abilities for every single moment I am blessed to have them. I can look at these numbers and realize I've got to improve and become better, instead of being disheartened and feeling like a failure. As long as I plan to improve next year, as long as I get ideas to tweak my lessons and procedures, I know I have hope for the future. I know that I love my job, especially when I feel deep within my soul and heart that I just taught my students something, and they liked it. I know I hate myself every time I yell at a child because they are being SO bad! I know that I am doing something so important and worth while that I hope to have the energy and creativity to teach until the end of my days. And finally, I can tell all of the people I know what I know so that they can pass this awareness onto others. Because if everybody knew this, nobody would stand back and let bloated bureaucratic blimps take the helm of education and steer it ever downward till it crashes like the Hindenburg. If everybody knew the numbers, if they stood out like blazing neon in the night, then there would be an uproar louder than anything we've ever heard.
I have no ambition to become an administrator or school board member or government reformer, because even though that's where the power lies, I know I would be burnt out as quickly as a candle in a hurricane. The voices of reason are so few in the crowd of people with power when it comes to education it's a miracle the school system has lasted this long. To be able to confront the problem head on is not my talent, but maybe it's the person behind me in a slow check out line. Maybe it's the person you talk to about educational inequity at the bus stop, or the person you chat with at church. Maybe it's the child you teach today who will grow up tomorrow to be a giant of change. Maybe it's you. I don't know. I do know that the next time somebody asks me what I do for a living, and then inevitably asks me if I like it, my answer won't be as simple as it was before.