Education On My Mind

Lately, I have engaged with many people from my husband to Oakland public school parents on the state of education in our country. I can talk about this topic for hours — as I know many of you can! Here are a few things on my mind:

My husband and I, who both graduated from excellent suburban public high schools, got into a discussion on the disparities in public schools. My husband was convinced there was a correlation between disparities in schools and the growing income disparity in our country. After reading this article in the Texas Tribune, I couldn’t agree more.

Michael Marder, a professor in the University of Texas’ department of physics and co-director of the university’s UTeach program, which prepares university graduates to become secondary math and science teachers, prepared charts of every piece of data you’d ever want to know about student achievement, like, what effect teacher bargaining had on student test scores as well as how charter schools compare to regular public schools. Even better, you can check out all this data in your home state, which he also had. I had fun comparing the charts.

But one of the things that blew me away is that Marder has yet to find a single school that serves a majority of low-income students — think schools in which 80 percent of the students qualify for the free lunch program — that could churn out more than a handful of students who could pass tests like the SAT. “The schools that serve the wealthy kids are up here,” Marder signaled with his hand on a video. “And the schools that serve the poor kids are down here. There are no exceptions…Not one. I did not find one this year, I did not find one last year or the year before that.”

Marder thought it was imperative that we find a way to help out these students. My question to you all is…how? Sometimes I feel like we’ve dug a hole for ourselves in the way we have insisted on cutting taxes for corporations and the wealthy, and both stigmatizing and cutting social safety nets that would help our most vulnerable families. How do we reverse this trend?

Also on my mind: I’ve received a lot of e-mails from Oakland Public School parents who just averted a crisis. Due to our state’s financial irresponsibility — how else could you explain $26 billion in debt when we have so many wealthy people and businesses in the state? — some of the schools in Oakland were in danger of shutting down this year. There were schools that expected to lay off all of their teachers!

Now I understand that the crisis was averted until…next year. My question for you all is where are students supposed to go if their school shuts down? Have any of you experienced a school closing?

Finally, I went out this weekend to the movies with friends. We saw Water for Elephants, which strayed from the book, but was still quite good. I enjoyed it.


We saw an earlier showing to eat dinner afterwards. The topic of conversation? The movie and…schools. I have a couple friends in the Berkeley public school district, which thankfully is being funded by a couple of taxpayer-approved bond measures. We have weathered a lot of the crisis facing other school districts like our neighbor Oakland.

But my friends had a complaint. They weren’t satisfied with their teachers this year. I asked one of them what she considered to be a “good teacher.” My friend thought about it for a moment and said that the issue with public education today is that there is such a range in child ability that it is impossible for a teacher to address every single person’s needs in the classroom. In her case, her child was just coasting since the teacher had to tend to other student’s needs. We got a laugh at how he is constantly tooting his own horn at being the “smart kid” in class.

My other friend echoed her. My question to you all is: have you noticed these disparities in the classroom? What have you done, if anything, to address them? How do you support your child — and the school?

14 thoughts on “Education On My Mind

  1. Well, next year, we are about to see…

    my kids attend a charter school and not a school in our large public district, but the changes are coming.  Massive changes.  Of course, this was prompted by budgetary concerns, but, we’re about to enter a grand experiment.  We are going to a K-8 format.  This necessitates a lot of closing of schools, moving of students and changing district lines.  If done well, I think this could be a positive.  We desperately need a re-drawing of district lines, so that in itself could be a positive.  I also think the k-8 concept is over all a good one.

    I’m also a fan of the “smaller learning communities” concept.  I think we can look at a lot of our rural schools, many who serve as many or nearly as many poor students as their urban counterparts, and take a few lessons.  The kids seem to do better.  The schools seem to do better.  I think it is because in a smaller school, there’s much that keeps kids from getting lost in the shuffle. There are multiple benefits.  Just think…if you were a third grade teacher, would it not be much easier if all of the students you had at the beginning of a year came from just one or possibly two classes?  And both those teachers had classrooms right next to yours?  In larger schools, it doesn’t work this way, so of course, one has children coming with a variety of differing educational experiences the previous year.  And in urban areas, many of the students in the classroom might have even attended a different school the previous year.  Anyway, there are ways in which we can mimic the smaller school experience…even in large urban districts.  

    I also think school choice within the public and charter system is a good thing.  Anything to keep from having large concentrations of mainly poor children segregated.  I think this is our main challenge.

    • Agree with the smaller schools

      Our elementary school is so small that I am constantly surprised that we’re still open.  Of course, this is accomplished by sharing administration and specials teachers with another building.

      I think my son has one of the bigger classes, at 22 students.  There is one class per grade, 4K-5.  Every teacher, para and even the janitor knows the name of each kid in the school.  It is awesome.  

      The one downside to small schools is that there is a lack of extra stuff.  We teach well to the middle but there isn’t much opportunity for challenge.  Even with that, I wouldn’t trade our school because the emotional nurture they have given my child is way better than any academic challenge at this point in his development.

  2. Here’s what is on my mind

    I’m back teaching music in this wonderful afterschool program that is run through the YMCA and Say Yes to Education.  Because the kids are in a low income district, they are receiving this service which is afterschool care and instruction for free.  That is great.

    Now kids are kids and I don’t expect them to be terribly focused in the final hour or two of a very long school day.  But sometimes it feels like they and their families are looking a gift horse in the mouth.  I have one boy who is acting up big time.  Not fidgety but kind of mean, nasty to others stuff.  When I mentioned to his mom that I may have to write a referral (discipline notice) for his behavior she told me that she always returns them to the school unread and refuses to acknowledge them.  So that means my options for dealing with him are reporting directly to her and she probably will end up hitting him.  Aargh.  Then there is the issue of the children, and here I am mostly thinking about boys but this includes some girls, who have gang members for their role models.  I don’t know what to do with that.  I can’t think of any way culturally relevant to communicate that the path they are looking at leads to the grave or prison.

    I’m fortunate.  These are only issues that I face in an afterschool program.  My job is to instill a love of music and provide a positive performance experience.  If they are being to much of a distraction to others or too disrespectful they can be kicked out of my program and I don’t rely on their test scores to justify the work that I do.  I don’t know how the classroom teachers deal with this culture.  And I’m pretty sure that the people who like to criticize teachers have no idea what they would do if they were up in front of these kids day after day.

  3. lots of big questions

    I’m just going to address one tiny corner, that of teaching kids of disparate achievement levels. As I’ve said here many times, I think multi-age classroom are good for lots of reasons, and this is the main one. It requires the teacher to know curriculum for probably 3 grades in order to be effective, and I’m not sure a single teacher could do it with the highly scripted curricula many schools are insisting on right now, but done well it’s a really good solution.

    • ooh, I’m glad to hear you say this

      Jess’s primary school (and Lily’s eventually) is multi-age. Kindergarteners are on their own, but it’s grades 1,2,3 and 4,5,6 grouped together (high school is 7-12 in Victoria). This is only the second year, so it’s too early to know for sure how well the school is doing it, but it seems to be a positive so far.

      • we had the same

        set-up — kinder classroom was mostly just for 5 year olds, though there were a few kids who did a second year there. The classrooms were named so there weren’t any overt grade levels until junior high, when kids were either in 7th or 8th grade. So a child might be in the Burrow, say, for one or two years, and might then go the Treehouse or skip it and go straight to the Eagle’s Nest depending on social/emotional/physical/academic development and class make-up.

        I will be interested to hear how you like it as you go along. As you can tell, I’m a fan ;-)

    • I don’t think it can be done

      with the current STAR (California) test format where every child is expected to learn each fact on a precise schedule. More’s the pity.

      I agree, otherwise it could work well.

  4. it’s so difficult to make all things equal

    our school funding relies heavily on property taxes, but we have a sort of “robin hood” system where school districts with more $$, like ours, turn money over to the state that goes to school districts with less $$.

    But even if you level the playing field on school funding, you still have to address the vast differences in what the kids get from home in terms of educational support. For example, at many schools around here, PTAs fund extras like foreign language classes in elementary school or fine arts programs. Schools in lower income areas don’t have the ability for their PTAs to do things like that, because they don’t have that kind of $$.  

    Then there’s a huge variation in terms of parental involvement — what the parents have time to do, and what the parents themselves may understand as their role.

    When I think about this, it makes me sad because there are so many factors that make it difficult to find a solution.

  5. I’ve said it before

    and the research I see just keeps bearing it out.  If we want to improve student achievement, we have to fix poverty, health care and early childhood/ daycare programs.  (DH would like me to add that “A little parent education wouldn’t hurt either.  ‘Cause no little kid needs to watch Saw 2.”)

    When we control for poverty, American kids score at or near the top internationally.  The other problem is that we believe that test scores equal student achievement.  

    Surprisingly, I’m seeing a small and unexpected surge in the number of schools contacting us for training in our progressive, problem-based instructional model which is very anti- test prep.  The general sentiment among these schools has been “We’re never going to get off the SINI list.  We’re never going to do well on the tests.  We just have to get back to educating kids.”  Ironically, I think they’ll find that they’re scores improve about the time they stop worrying about them so much.

    • Oh Jebus yes!

      (DH would like me to add that “A little parent education wouldn’t hurt either.  ‘Cause no little kid needs to watch Saw 2.”)

      It always seemed like their first graders sharing the plot details of those movies with me as they lined up outside of my room in the Catholic school were the ones with behavior or other problems or kids who already had the deck stacked against them with either young parents or chaotic homes.  And then if you were to actually call the parents on this one, they would brag about how they were sure to tell their kids it wasn’t real and their kids “got it” because they were so intelligent of course.  Kids that age are really not developmentally ready to make that distinction.  It’s even worse where I teach now.

      And quite frankly, I know I may be ruffling some feathers here, but I boycott torture porn.  I have no problem with scary movies with actual plots even if there is mayhem involved.  But I think that it is no small coincidence that these movies became popular as the Bush admin was justifying the use of torture on real people.

  6. School closing

    My DS1′s school closed. He went there for kindergarten. It was a heart wrenching thing for the school community. It was actually scheduled to close 2 years down the road during that kindy year and we knew it was coming so we moved him after kindy to the school we thought he would be assigned to, which he was, and he’s been there ever since.

    The district built a new school under erroneous enrollment projections and then once it opened, in a new neighborhood nearby full of kids, there weren’t enough kids at our old neighborhood school any more. That’s why it closed.

  7. Just got back from a week of Outdoor Science

    School in the woods.

    We were there with another school and I was so impressed by the kids from both schools, and by the terrific program.

    Obviously, any staff that even signs up for a program like this has gone above and beyond, and it was really great to get to meet the staff and students from the other school.

    We hiked, ran, and did environmental science for 5 days. There is some good stuff going on in our schools, for sure.

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