Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Education and the Second Law of Thermodynamics

There is an entropy to the world, where things more easily go from a state of order to a state of disorder. And nowhere is this more obvious than in a public school.

Public education was a great idea, when it started. It's still a great idea, I suppose. But what it has become in places like where I work is a big mess. Kids with peculiar needs are mainstreamed into settings where they cannot get the individual attention that they need. Teens who are entering some of their most formative years are being thrown together with kids of such varying backgrounds and upbringings only to find a gravitation towards the lowest common denominator. The standard of the education suffers because we want "no child left behind," but we end up cheating thousands out of a good education in our efforts to save a dozen who put forth little to no effort in their schoolwork. The curriculum gets dumber and dumber and the behavioral climate gets more and more like a zoo every day. Granted, I work in a school labelled "at risk" by the Federal Government, and I don't get to work with the Advanced Placement students at our school, so my perspective may be more negative than some. But I'm pretty sure most teachers I work with would agree that the tools they and the administrators need to climb out of this hole will never be afforded them. Let me give a couple of illustrations:

I've got a student who comes into my class and cusses me out before I even can say "good morning." He provokes all the students around him until I have to finally write him up for defiance, insubordination, and disrupting class. That piece of paper will eventually be put on a pile along with the others on the adminstrator's desk, and sometime within the next week it will be dealt with (we are not allowed to simply send students to their respective administrators--we are supposed to handle all discipline within the classroom. Using what, I have no idea). The student may receive In-School-Suspension for a couple of days, where he would be thrown in with 30 other students who were each thrown out of their classrooms for similar reasons. But there is such a backlog of students needing this placement that there is a long waiting list to get in.

Let me repeat that. He will not go to ISS for several more days because there is a waiting list to get in. So he will return to my class for the next week, having no immediate consequences for his actions in my classroom. Incidentally, he shows no concern for his grade average remaining in the single digits. How do you think that affects his behavior in my classroom? Eventually he will serve his ISS, but little will come of it. I am obligated by law to make sure he is provided with all the materials and assignments he needs to not fall behind in his classwork. Eventually, if he acts up enough, he will be given a real suspension (OSS-Out of School Suspension). He will stay home for three days and watch TV or whatever. Even then, if his parents request that I give him his work I must provide all of his assignments for the next three days in advance. He will probably never touch the work, but I will have to prepare it all for him anyway.

There's a bigger problem, though. You see, this student has already received suspensions totalling 23 days (we're only 3 months into the school year), and we are restricted by law from suspending him beyond 10 days without holding special "manifestation" meetings for each suspension in order to prove that we have in fact done all that we can to prevent each of the suspensions in question. In other words, after he has received a total of 10 days of OSS, we cannot suspend him anymore until we can arrange manifestation meetings with a committee of important people who will demand that each of us meticulously document everything we have done to prevent this punishment from escalating to its current status. Separate meetings have to be arranged and executed for each suspension period beyond that legal limit of 10 days. What is the student doing during this time? Coming to class as usual, of course. Probably he will be receiving ISS at some point each week due to his continuing behavior, but in each case he will not be able to enter the ISS classroom for a few days because they have no room for more. He will remain in his regular classroom until all this eventually works out, or until he graduates or finally drops out of school, which ever comes first.

I've got another student who literally never comes to class--he skips almost every class every day. He rides the bus every day; he eats in the cafeteria (a free lunch, by the way); he borrows money from friends to raid the snack machines later; then he finds places to go all over campus where somehow he will never be asked what he is doing wandering around. Eventually he will be suspended for skipping class, but you understand now how that will go. He will really just continue coming to school everyday, alternately wandering the halls and walking off campus to buy a snack at the nearby convenience store.

Since he's failing every class and earning no credits whatsoever, one might ask: "Why does he come?" The answer is simple. 1. His mother doesn't want the 17 year old hanging around the house, 2. He doesn't want to get a job, 3. He gets free lunch at school, and 4. Going to school is the only way for him to hook up with his cohorts for whatever it is that they do. More than likely, this young fellow is buying and selling weed to his friends. But somehow no one has caught him doing it. So he will continue coming to school each day, making his "connections" and dodging class most of the time, all on Uncle Sam's dime.

Just so I don't sound inordinantly negative, I stumbled into an AP class the other day and I was amazed to see all of the students dutifully doing their work--without the teacher even being in the room! I thought I had stepped back in time to the day when I went to school and the kids had reason to be motivated to keep on top of their studies. I wanted to just sit and soak up the peacefulness for a few minutes before heading back to my trailer and my students. It was relieving to discover that those students still exist even in a "low-performing" school like this one.

Still though, a former colleague of mine argued that all kids should be home schooled during at least their middle school years. I'm beginning to think he's right.


Blogger Jada's Gigi said...

I agree, it is shocking and discouraging to say the least and I too have had the experience, not momentarily but for 6 long years, of being amazed watching my high performance student excel even in such a horrible environment. It can be and is done. On the other hand...a dear friend who teaches at the middle school level is currently homeschooling their own middle schooler and will continue with their subsequent children. Why put your kid through this horrible and possibly dangerous situation if not necessary?? Life is hard enough without those kinds of distractions. If I had bit to do over again would I pull mine out?? Probably at least the younger one who was most negatively affected by such a system.

12:13 PM  
Blogger Herobill said...

"he skips almost every class every day. He rides the bus every day; he eats in the cafeteria (a free lunch, by the way); he borrows money from friends to raid the snack machines later; then he finds places to go all over campus"

Man, is this a great country or what??!! ;>

Hang in there, dude!

4:01 PM  
Blogger Jeremy Uriz said...

Sounds like someone needs to read John Taylor Gatto's "A New Kind of Teacher".

Maybe you can ask them if they want to be rappers when they get out of school. Tell them their assignment is to put on a concert for the entire class so they can get ready for the big time (or big house, depends I guess).

11:21 PM  
Anonymous Matt Adams said...

My sister is a public school teacher in an affluent district and she has sworn she won't let her kids be taught by that system. Wants to homeschool them also.

Rather then try and educate kids "factory style" (line them all up in rows and process them en masse), the traditional (and ancient) master-apprentice/master-disciple style of educating young people seems a far more human way.

7:19 AM  

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