Thursday, February 11, 2010

Mr. Klein Speaks

Recently, I spoke with an educator who is employed at a high school under "government improvement" -- this is what happens to a school when their student scores fail to improve on the yearly STAR assessment exams. I've talked with teachers who work at these "failing" schools and actually drive door to door during testing time, rounding up kids and dragging them in so that the school can meet the mandatory quota for student participation. And once the kids get there, well, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out exactly how hard they try.

This educator likened the environment at her "failing" school to George Orwell's,
1984. Which caused me to ponder, how can any intellectual environment truly thrive in any sort of creative, inspiring way, if the setting is such that teachers are afraid to speak their minds and express their opinions? And so, on the eve of the decision made by the Santa Rosa City School Board, (home to some 30 schools), to eliminate 7.6 librarian jobs, cut funding for campus police, increase class size, shorten the school year by 3 days, and cancel all spring sports, (track, swimming, softball, baseball), I have decided to begin giving voice to as many teachers as I can find who are willing to speak.

Please enjoy what will be the first of many short teacher interviews.

Bob Klein teaches English, among other things, at a continuation high school in California.

Q. How long have you worked in the public school system and what subjects and grade levels do you teach?

I’ve worked in the public school system since the mid-80s. I began my career at Casa Grande High School in Petaluma, with a population that has ranged, through the years, from about 1500-1800 students. For thirteen years, I taught introductory Spanish to mostly freshman. I also taught Human Interaction for about six years, exclusively to freshman. That class was a lot of fun, providing information and living skills to help teenagers make right choices in their personal lives. This class informed and shaped my own perspective of what it means to educate youngsters.

For the past nine years, I’ve been teaching English at San Antonio High School, also in Petaluma. This is a continuation school where kids find it a little easier to succeed without the pressure of homework and strict academic standards required by most colleges. It’s a great place to work, but when I transferred there, I miscalculated how the difference in the level of behavior and attitude would affect my approach and my curriculum. It took me a good couple of months to re-orient myself to a different type of student, and classroom. These are students whose needs are primarily dictated by a combination of low motivation, drug dependency, little family support, anti-social behavior, and any combination of these and many other factors that create the need for alternative sites.

Q. What effect do you feel No Child Left Behind legislation has had on the schools where you have worked? Have these changes been subtle? Profound? Inconsequential?

When I took my education courses at Sonoma State, I experienced a renewed sense of love/hate with the many pathways into academentia. And though I would soon be an agent of the academic environment, I always kept a safe distance from some of the ideologies that characterize the “academic paradigm,” such as using terms like “academic paradigm,” and leading to such legislation as No Child Left Behind.

There is not one teacher in my sphere of colleagues who feels that there is any wisdom in No Child Left Behind. I see it as a misguided and short-sighted piece of politics. In the interest of brevity, I will point to the ultimate manifestation of this policy, which is to test our students based on curriculum standardized to meet arbitrary and unrealistic goals. And then to take the results of these tests and determine which schools are wonderful bastions of student success, and which schools suck and need government intervention to improve student success.

Success at what, and according to whom? is a favorite question, but I will remain brief on that subject.

Q. With the Obama administration, comes new attempts to reform the public school system. Top on the list is merit pay, formation of national standards, and an increased emphasis on data collection and standardized assessments. If you were the President's Secretary of Education, what would be your top suggestions to improve our struggling education system?

More alternatives! Standards, data, assessments...they work for certain kids, the ones who are driven to succeed in the academic world. For those students, schools are just dandy, and they will adapt to just about anything we throw at them. But some students aren’t getting what we’re feeding them, and can’t handle the delivery system. We can try to change the system, which is what Washington wonks and bureaucrats have attempted. Then policies such as merit pay become a desperate attempt to make us compete for the big bucks. Some teacher stuck in Lower Skunk High School where the population is 85% minority, or the average income is below the poverty line, or for whatever other reasons the young Skunks don’t rise to a specified level, Mr. John Q. Teacher at Skunk High is #@!! out of luck!

What to do? More money for programs that matter. When the first thing to be cut from a school are the music and arts programs, we have a problem. We need the arts and music, woodshop and auto tech, and movement classes, including dance and tai chi; these programs are the heart and soul of a school. Librarians get cut, as if they were expendable. Why is mathematics sacrosanct? And Ancient History? It’s interesting, and great stuff, but why not share the pain? Do kids need English class every single semester? What about the kids who hate English, and will never read a book even if their lives depended on it?

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