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Mar 15 2011

The State of Public Education from a Student’s Perspective (My First Diary)

(2 pm. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

Reposted from Daily Kos

I graduated from a relatively large public high school in a impoverished area in rural Maine last year, having completed all 12 years in the local public school system. In case you haven’t noticed, there has been a lot of discussion on this site since the attacks on teacher’s unions. As someone who has experienced first hand the effects of No Child Left Behind and the budget shortfalls at the federal, state, and local level, I feel like I should share my experience. There have been quite a few diaries posted here by teachers and parents, but I haven’t seen any by students.

Before I begin to talk about everything that is terribly wrong with the public school system in this country, let me just say that I’m not doing it because it ended badly for me. I couldn’t be in a better place, and I’m happy to have spent all my years in the schools and surrounded by the people that I was. However, it worked out so well for me largely because I had a solid family situation, and I was self-motivated enough to accomplish what I needed to accomplish. However I did stand witness to all of those kids that it didn’t work out so well for, and it was obvious that things were only getting worse as I left.

So, let us begin.

First of all, the impact of the man, the myth, the legend, Mr. George Walker Bush and his No Child Left Behind. This introduced a whole new era of public education, and it’s not a pretty one. As I’m sure you’re all aware, this, in a nutshell, was intended to increase the education of all students by requiring them to meet certain standards of education. Those schools that didn’t measure up would be held accountable for this. In theory, it really doesn’t sound so bad; it seems reasonable to make sure that kids are actually learning things at school.

But it was bad; it was really bad. Somewhere between the forming the concept and enacting the law, something went horribly, horribly wrong. Instead of simply keeping tabs on students’ progress over the years, it turned into a way of forcing students to only try and be average. Adding to that, someone thought it made sense to cut funding from under-performing schools as punishment for not living up to the national standards, which of course only made things worse, trapping some schools in a steady decline that was only compounded by the recession.

For instance, everyone in my school had to take the SAT in junior year; apparently the state said that it could be used in place of some other state standardized test we would’ve had to take otherwise. The school made a very huge deal about this. We had assemblies about it, just about every relevant class would do some test prep, there were study sessions offered after school for months beforehand, and the school basically did everything they could to make sure we knew this was a BIG DEAL. It turns out my school did really well, much to my surprise, considering I knew many people who either slept most of the time or just went C, C, C, C, C, etc. But, apparently all that extra work paid off, so crisis averted, we didn’t lose even more funding. It makes me wonder though, what happened to the school in last place? Where one too many kid made cool patterns in the bubbles? Obama hadn’t instituted his “Meet The Standard Or We Burn Your School To The Ground” policy, so at least the school was probably still there. But now, this school that obviously needs a way to motivate and educate their kids, which can really only be done with extra funding, is going to have to cut programs and positions, and likely offer less support to the kids. Whose idea was this again? Sure, the fear of not passing motivated my school enough to get enough of the kids into gear and meet the standard, but now those who don’t cut it are basically just left for dead.

The result of this loss of fundings means that schools start losing vital things. These schools end up with larger classes, and can’t level kids as well anymore. Since the only motivation was to make everyone meet the standard – there was no real reward for having some people exceed – then everyone just gets mushed together into the same classes to try and make everyone pass.

They started to do this at my school too because they found some grant that required following this system, but fortunately I just barely escaped this part of the mess. As I moved into my junior year they decided to stop leveling certain freshman and sophomore classes. While mathematics may say this simply means everyone just comes closer to the former median in education, reality says that it just brings everyone way down. The smart kids completely lose motivation because they can do everything with incredible ease and are just bored out of their minds all day, and the kids who struggle with the class feel beat down because they see how easy it is for some of the kids and so they lose motivation too. It just isn’t possible for everyone to get mixed together, and then BAM everyone can meet the standard. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and in public school, chances are you’ll have a very weak link in just about every class. The reason we have public school is so that everyone can achieve some level of education, but its ridiculous to try and make everyone reach the same level.

Then, of course, there was the financial crisis. Any school that had already been having budget issues because of NCLB was surely done for now, and my school – which had so complacently succeeded at the SATs – had already been struggling with money for awhile, so it became even worse. My school decided to implement a budget freeze in order to try and save jobs. Besides paper, classes couldn’t buy anything. I was in Advanced Placement chemistry last year, a class where you take a test at the end of the year for college credit. Fortunately, a lot of the chemicals were already stockpiled enough for our class, but still, by the end of the year there were some experiments that we just had to skip because the school couldn’t buy more chemicals. My teacher is also supposed to get rid of chemicals that have been around too long, since, according to state safety people, they might have been unsafe to use. So my teacher was supposed to get rid of some of the chemicals he had, and he wasn’t allowed to buy more. That is just a crappy situation to be in. I can only imagine what that class is doing this year. This was a similar story for every class in the school that required any resources at all, which was basically all of them.

But somehow, even though we had resorted to a complete budget freeze, in the past couple years no one got laid off. Teachers offered to take furlough days instead of people losing their jobs. The school also did not fill most positions left vacant by people leaving the school.  Chemistry classes didn’t buy chemicals. Great, I thought, we can all make some sacrifice so people can keep their jobs. But it is so sad for me to realize that this was a victory. Our school had accomplished what so many public schools, especially in impoverished areas, had failed to do: not lay anyone off. Our public school system has come to the point where the best anyone can hope for is not that class sizes will decline, not that more people will get into ivy leagues, not that more classes can be offered to give students a more varied education, but that no one gets fired this year.

It is shocking how far the system has fallen. Thirty years ago it wasn’t uncommon for people from my school to get into Harvard and Stanford and the like. But in the four years I was there I saw two people get into ivy leagues, one who spent the first three years of high school at a math and science charter school, and one who was homeschooled most of his life. Ninety percent of kids in the U.S. go to public school, yet only about sixty percent of kids at Stanford went to public high school. That’s a pretty huge difference, and unfortunately it’s somewhat common with Ivy League type schools. But these are students who are trying to learn while surrounded by the chaos of deficits and cuts, and are probably being taught by a teacher fighting to keep their job.

Fiscal conservatism has basically turned the public school system into Lord of the Flies, and something huge needs to happen to fix it. The first huge thing of course would be to tax the rich so hard it makes their head spin and speed up that goddamn trickling down. But it’s going to be a very, very long time before that happens – or any positive reform it seems – so all we can do is just hope the kids still going through the system make it out alive.

18 comments

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  1. ek hornbeck

    You got a glowing recommendation from Doc.

    I’ll warn you ahead of time that these sites run much slower than you might be used to and you’ll never get a zillion comments, but we’re happy to give your work the prominence we can.

    Since most of our readers have associations with dK we also practice (but do not enforce) the convention of a tip jar so people can show appreciation.

    Welcome aboard.  I hope you find your experience here enjoyable and favor us with more of your thoughts.

  2. BobbyK

    isn’t heard from nearly enough. Excellent piece. I rarely have time to visit the Orange so thank you for posting it here as well.

    I’m figuring when you talk about “leveling classes” you mean that Advanced Placement (AP) classes for gifted students aren’t being offered. (at least that’s what they called them back when I was in school).

    Personally, I didn’t have the grades to enroll in AP classes but a lot of my friends did. I was extremely jealous. They got to dissect pigs, while those of us in the standard bio classes had to dissect earth worms or frogs at best. The AP english and history classes were also a lot more fun.  My friends were always bragging about how great all of their teachers were while I found only few that were especially inspiring. But there were a few, and I AM very grateful to have had them.

    In spite of missing the AP cut, I agree those classes are very important. As I understand it, some educators argue that mixing high achievement students with average students helps both categories. That may be the case in some situations, but that wasn’t my experience.

    I was in the Advanced Placement wind ensemble and I have to say, that was very challenging and extremely fun. It’s probably why I ended up a Music major 3 years later.

    Balancing budgets by cutting funds to public schools is an ongoing catastrophe.  I wish I could say it started with W but I’ve been watching it locally since Reagan. W just made it worse.

    You’d think supporting public education would be a no-brainer.

    Education…beyond all other devices of human origin, is a great equalizer of conditions of men –the balance wheel of the social machinery…It does better than to disarm the poor of their hostility toward the rich; it prevents being poor. Horace Mann

  3. Phoenix
  4. RiaD

    very well written. i’m glad you posted it here.

    sorry i’m so late to it.

    while i do agree somewhat with you about the need for leveling students i think that given an un-leveled class one can make it work by having the smarter “more gifted” kids help the slower “less gifted” ones. this was done in my 6th grade mumblety-four years ago. (gha, i hate having to be PC)

    it accomplished several things at once: teachers with huge classes suddenly have teachers-assistants, giving them time to give individual help those in desperate need; often kids can explain to other kids in a way more easily understood; the slower kids get more individual attention; the smarter kids really come to understand whatever lesson by explaining it to someone else; bonds are formed between kids that otherwise might not associate.

    the decline in education has been going on for a long, long time. my mom (who would’ve been 94 this year) knew how to do multiplication, division,  fractions & decimals by the end of second grade. she & everyone in her class were taught the basics of chemistry, biology, geography, american & world history, algebra/trig, drawing, music, literature, latin, french or spanish & english by the time they graduated high school; some took advanced classes.  

    the standardized test, in my mind, was the onset of the “great decline” in education.  the recent “need” for teachers to do so much paperwork (writing syllabi daily, filing these at school office in advance, etc), to take courses yearly (?)to remain certified, & to socially promote students has made it harder for teachers to actually, you know, spend time in the classroom teaching.

    a secondary factor, in my opinion, is the lessening of punishment on students for not accomplishing a set task or maintaining a certain level of behaviour. getting a zero isn’t enough when you know they have to promote you. i partially blame the lessening of expectations we have for younger people. i’ve found the more you expect of people & believe that they will achieve the harder they will strive to do so.

    the funding for education must be increased. communities that have schools with higher drop out rates need even more funding- for schools & other community programs also- like day-care & after school care, community gardens, very local libraries & theater groups, playgrounds & parks.

    until we fund not only education but communities we will produce a fairly un-educated populace who are content to work for a minimum wage that stays stagnant, shop at the big-box stores, watch reality TV.

    please continue to cross-post here!

     

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