Why Our Education System is Unjust

Social Justice — By on November 1, 2006 at 12:00 am

It was about 2:00 in the afternoon when Jake raised his hand, right in the middle of my explanation of the spelling assignment. I was trying desperately hard to make my 10 year olds understand the difference between the long “u” sound and the long “oo” sound. I had even demonstrated moving my mouth with each sound and trying to get my students to follow along.
When I saw Jake’s hand, I sighed in my head. Not out loud, even 10 year olds know what that means. I called on Jake and was not disappointed when he asked this question. “Miss Rivers, not to be rude or anything, but we haven’t done anything fun this year. Could we do some more fun stuff?”
What? What was he talking about? We do fun things. We play literature games every couple of weeks. We were going on our one and only field trip in another month or so. I do a fun problem solving game with them at least once a week. We even managed to do some projects on the computers a few times during the year.
My first reaction was to get angry. I mean this little 10-year-old boy had just essentially insulted my teaching. I’m sure my face turned red and I stopped for a moment, thinking about the question that he had asked. I don’t remember what I said to Jake, but I do know this–it didn’t take me long to realize he was right. We hadn’t done anything fun, at least outside of the few hours of activities I’d listed above in nearly a year of school. And it wasn’t an insult to my teaching. It was a commentary on the state of education in low-income, program improvement schools where test scores reign and teachers have no control over the curriculum taught in their classes. And this insightful observation was made by a ten-year-old boy.
Whether or not you believe that learning should be fun, I believe that this child was making another point. Not just that learning wasn’t fun in my class, in my school, but that learning was monotonous, boring and not designed to inspire or ignite a fire in children, but designed rather to try and make up a few points in test scores. Children know these things. Jonathan Kozol writes in Shame of the Nation that students have a way of knowing when they are being manipulated and may choose then to become difficult or unfocused, essentially saying to their teachers that they will not learn from them.
During the four years I had been teaching at this low-income, low performing school district, I had seen more and more restrictions placed on teachers and teaching. One program after another had been adopted in an attempt to raise test scores, and one program after another had been discarded because it didn’t make phenomenal improvements within a one-year time span. All of this disruption is in an attempt to improve test scores, to get out of program improvement and to meet the ridiculous requirements of No Child Left Behind. Although it may seem that way, this is not just another rant about No Child Left Behind.
My issue isn’t just that I don’t like No Child Left Behind. My issue is the impact it has on mostly minority, poor children who happen to live in the areas where these kinds of schools exist. There are lots of fingers to point the blame as to why test scores are low in these areas. That’s not the point. The point is, every year more and more schools are being labeled “failing” schools and the result is that we subject students to the kind of education Jake was complaining about.
Most people have never set foot inside the schools that I’m talking about. I don’t teach in the kind of schools Jonathan Kozol wrote about either. My school has money, the kind of money that comes from being program improvement–the kind that comes with strings attached. The bathrooms work, most of the time. There is air-conditioning, plenty of textbooks and brand new computers in most of the classrooms. It’s easy to look at my school and think that we are doing a good thing for these students. In fact, at this paragraph, some people might stop and wonder what exactly I’m complaining about.
I’m complaining because the kids can’t do it for themselves. No one’s jumping up to make changes because Jake said his classroom isn’t fun. But I understand what he means. I understand that what we are doing to this group of children is shrinking their worlds by limiting their learning to rote English and Math. Children like Jake, children all over the state of California and beyond, spend their days hearing scripted curriculum, doing worksheets, and practicing math drills. They spend little if any time in Science and Social Studies. Art and Music have been all but eliminated. Last year, at my school there was no time for festivals, reading time or even projects that weren’t specifically outlined in one of the curriculum programs. Field trips were limited to the last month of school, after testing was over. And parties? Even a last day of school party? Banned all together.
If all schools were moving in this direction, I would still be unhappy, but my complaint would be different. Last year, I sat through endless lectures from consultants from the state who told us that children in these low-income areas learn differently and that’s why the instruction they receive is so different than that of the upper and middle class students just a few miles away. They need more focused math and reading instruction. They apparently don’t need science, social studies, music and art. I teach fifth grade and was told that the only thing I needed to teach in science was the periodic table, because that’s what would be tested on the standardized test. Apparently, it’s not important for our kids to know the three states of matter, or about the solar system or the systems of the body. Only the periodic table needs to be taught–a standard I learned in 10th grade chemistry, by the way.
There are lots of injustices I could point out about schools in low-performing, low-socioeconomic areas–the bullet holes in my computer lab that weren’t repaired for weeks after gang-members decided to take shots at my school, the class sizes in 4th and 5th grade that make it next to impossible to truly reach every child, the restrictions placed on my teaching that mean even if my class is engaged in a great discussion about a piece of literature or an event in history, I have to move on to what’s next on my schedule because I might get written up for being off my time schedule. All of these things make me scratch my head and wonder how this could possibly be what’s best for children. But the biggest injustice, the one that made me throw up my hands and say ‘enough’ is the focus on test scores to the exclusion of everything else.
At some point in the middle of the last school year, our state consultant told the teachers at my school that we needed to start spending our science and social studies time on test prep. The little time that we had was now being taken away. We also were asked to review a list of our students and their test scores. We were given the magic number 350 and told to look for students whose test scores were just below that number. We were asked to choose the 7 or 8 students who were closest to that number and start working with this group of students everyday in a small group–in the only small group time we had. If we could boost those students’ scores in every classroom, perhaps we could raise the schools’ test scores and no longer be considered a program improvement school.
I hope that sounds as wrong to you as it did to me. I had 32 children in my classroom. All of a sudden, my focus was to become 7 or 8 students who could help the school by meeting an arbitrary number that a bunch of bureaucrats chose to mean “proficient.” If I had to pinpoint a day that I decided to leave that school, it would be the one when I was asked to choose 7 students to teach while ignoring the rest of my class. Perhaps that sounds like an oversimplification. I don’t think so. The culture of many schools under the umbrella of program improvement is test scores to the exclusion of kids. Mine was one of those.
It’s easy to ignore the problems in public education. If you don’t have kids, or if your kids go to a good school where learning still trumps test scores, this may not seem like a big problem. Or it may seem like someone else’s problem. But this is an issue about the kind of society that we are willing to live in–are we really okay with offering students a lesser education because of their zip code? Jesus said “whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me.” Well, Jake and the rest of these students are the least of these. What are we going to do for them?


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  • Wendy says:

    Pamela, you’ve really nailed a torrential problem– especially when the excellent teachers, like you, are forced to leave because of the restraints! The new sup claims he will weed out the “bad” teachers in LAUSD; how much of it is the teacher and how much is it the stifling school conditions that make them that way?

  • Andrew Hedinger says:

    It is truly disturbing to hear about how students in some schools are treated. The idea that because these kids are lower class they learn differently than middle and upper class children is a terrible sign of the economic biases found in our nations. What is the difference between saying that people of a different race are not as smart as “we” are and saying that a different social class are not as smart as “we” are? This trend is as disturbing and wrong as it would be to say that all hispanics must be taught in different schools and in a differnt way than all whites becasue they are of a different race and thus not as smart.
    Thank you for this insightful look at what is really going on in our school system.

  • Bucaniner Rob says:

    Pam, reading your story was like reading my biography of teaching experience. I do not belong to LAUSD however, the same thing is occuring in my district and it makes me believe that it is happening in many districts across CA, if not the US. Is testing really measuring the success or failure of our schools? Or is it the new way to segregate? What’s next? Will the low performing kids have their own water fountains?

  • Terry says:

    I am not a teacher and I am not that familiar with the No Child Left Behind program – but it seems to me that maybe, just maybe, the reason these schools have been identified as “failing” and that these children have been identified as below par is because, they are.
    The approach and methods being mandated by NO Child Left Behind to remedy the problem may not be the best (as a matter of fact – I would like to see it be easier to get rid of teachers who don’t perform; I would like to see vouchers to make it easier for low income family’s to have some choice in where their children attend school; I would like to see disruptive students expelled so the one’s who want to learn can learn, ….) But to make statements about it being a program designed to marginalize and segragate low income and minorities is a bit over the top, don’t you think.
    Because you disagree with the method, does not mean that the motive is less sincere.

  • Andrew E. says:

    Wonderful article, Ms. Rivers.
    To Terry:
    You’re right, in that the motive is sincere. But here’s the thing. NCLB has an arbitrary system of measurement, that is to say that the way a school is labeled depends on how its students do on one test.
    Think about this for a second. One test summarizes an entire year’s worth of progress. One test accounts for everything students do during the year. One test decides how good of students they are, and how good the teachers are, and how good the school is.
    It shouldn’t surprise you that students who are well-prepared to take a test do better on that test than students who are more intelligent and more knowledgeable, but are not as well-prepared. This has been studied, and it has been proven.
    More to the point, it just isn’t fair to the students. Kids get nervous about tests, they stress out, and they have bad days. If you’re going to evaluate performance, do it in a portfolio. Look for consistent performance instead of a one-shot deal.
    You’re right, Terry – it would be a lot better if we could get rid of bad teachers. But we need good teachers to replace them. With current teaching salaries being what they are, someone who could be a good teacher is most likely going to go into another career because they have the affective and effective traits to be successful in almost anything. Teacher turnover rates over the first 5 years are right about 50%… there’s a reason for that.
    Vouchers alone will not solve the problem. However, giving schools more hiring power, forcing schools (even if they stay public) to compete with each other to attract the best and brightest teachers (and students), and giving teachers more reasons to stay on the job… maybe that will do something.

  • T. Kim Nguyen says:

    I think it’s widely accepted that NCLB is one of the worst educational initiatives in recent memory. It is an underfunded initiative that forces square pegs into round holes. So no, Bush’s motives were not sincere but rather quite cynical.

  • Schjlatah says:

    I’m no teacher, nor am I a student any more; but I do remember when I was in school. I was pulled aside with a small group of “gifted” students who performed in the top 95 percentile, but were failing all our classes. The focus of the study was to find out what our teachers were doing wrong. When we all unanimously and individually told them that we were bored in class and we all just happen to test well, they quickly canceled the group. That was in the late 90s. I doubt NCLB was around then, but the problem of schools catering to scores of one kind or another, be it test scores or sports rankings, is one that has been going on as far back as I can remember.

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