Sunday, March 15, 2009

You Get Out of it What You Put Into It

The struggles in the school system of Florida are significant. I hope that our troubles are an anomaly but I doubt it. Classroom teachers are being let go and basic supplies (paper clips, toilet paper, loose leaf, pens and pencils) are not easy to get from the schools. The school district does not have the money to meet its basic bills. Choices were made by the public, and by politicians that created a situation that has been significantly magnified by the economic downturn.
When I first started teaching (mid 1990s), I was a bright eyed, bushy tailed history teacher just coming off work on Capitol Hill. I’ve always worked in the public school system (mostly Title I). I really like the idea of doing a job where I can be a positive influence on people. I still like the idea. I’ve always wondered what is the difference between a high performing school and a school that struggles.
For those readers in and around New Orleans, there are actually some very good public schools in this country. The answer for education is not necessarily privatization of schools. While charter schools might be appealing to some they are not affordable to everybody. I hear someone out there sitting at there computer screen saying “ But that is what the vouchers are for”. It is my belief that vouchers will do nothing to help families move their children from a low performing public school to a high performing private school. This should not shock anyone but there are some private schools where the education is not exactly stellar. By the way, for the purposes of full disclosure, I attended both public and private schools as a child.
If the government sets up a voucher program then they will need to publicize it. I will presume that the government program will give every family $3,000 (arbitrary figure) per child as a voucher to go to any school. What is to stop the upper echelon private schools from raising their tuition rates by that same exact figure? For those of you saying that would be discriminatory, I don’t believe so. As long as the school raises their rates on all students equally then there is no argument concerning discrimination.
What brings all of this up? Why write an article on education concerns with the banking crisis, various bailouts and China making bombastic comments left and right? Well, dear reader, this is the time of year that standardized tests are being administered. In Florida, it is the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT); in Louisiana it is the Louisiana Educational Assessment Program (LEAP). Numerous other states have tests similar to these. These are the tests that determine the success or failure not only of our children/students, but they are also the instruments used to determine the success of schools as a whole.
This test is given at numerous grade levels throughout the career of a student (while they both give it earlier as well, La. & FL both give it to students in 8th and 12th grade). On an individual level if a student does not test well on the FCAT he or she cannot get the standard High School Diploma. That student might have a 3.0 or higher but not test well, and will be saddled with a certificate of attendance or participation rather than a High School Diploma. In Florida that Certificate of Attendance will get you into a Junior or Community College, but not a traditional four/five year institution.
At the school level teachers and or administrators are pressured to bring up test scores. Teach the students the material, but also teach them how to take the test. Give them practice tests; teach them strategies do whatever you have to do to get these kids ready for the Test. Now why are we as a nation all pushing these standardized tests? Why is it a national belief that public schools are failing this generation? What is the difference between a good school and a bad school?
I’ve always heard that the schools need more money. I’ve always heard that some teachers are better than others, and we need to get paid more. In my various teaching jobs over the last 7 years; this is the 1st time I can agree with these statements. However, while I agree with these statements, that is not my belief as to why some schools are more successful than others.
Throughout my life, I’ve taken part in numerous organizations. There is a saying I learned in a high school fraternity, many years ago. ‘You get out of this what you put into it’. Public schools need funding, and teachers, they need capital improvement. They need many things that I’ve not mentioned. That being said some are successful, and some are not.
The teachers at a private school are trained in the same education schools as public school teachers. We read the same professional literature and get many of the same continuing education courses. By the way public school teachers, while woefully underpaid, are generally paid better than their private school counterparts.
If all other things are equal, such as school funding teacher-student ratio, quality of materials etc., there is only one significant difference between a high performing school and a low performing school. The only real difference is parental involvement.
If the community of families that make up any given school make education a priority then their children, those students, and that school will be successful. If the parents figure it is the responsibility of the school to educate, counsel, raise, and discipline their children then those parents are not involved enough. Generally, students with parents who are involved, get better grades.
There are numerous ways the education system can improve and this one does not cost any federal dollars. If you want your daughter or son to get the best education she/he can take a few minutes to ask about school. In my opinion if parents make education a priority at that level then the system might improve more than people think.

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