Monday, September 14, 2015

Equalizing Education? Not with This Obstacle ...

While the United States provides public education to its population, the quality of such is all over the map. It's simply unavoidable.

There are many and varied reasons for this, of course.

School districts that pay their teachers and administrators well are likely to retain a strong, talented staff of educators. The converse, of course, is also true.

Larger schools have a larger pool to pull from in terms of athletic teams, extracurriculars, and students to fill in Advanced Placement classes.

Smaller schools often provide a family feel, where students and staff know each other well and would go to the mat for each other. 

Inner city schools are frequently rich in culture and diversity.

Consolidated country schools offer original electives such as cow care and snowmobile mechanics.

Whether we are using "Common Core", sold as the great educational equalizer intended to level the playing field, or not, there is no question that schools are vastly different. I live in New Hampshire, and my children have gone to three different school districts. Extremely different.

Are all New England Schools alike? Of course not. The South? Runs the gamut, I'm sure. California? The so-called Bible Belt? Alaska or Hawaii? 

It's hard enough to compare schools in one state or one region, but let's be real; no two schools are alike. I've been an educator long enough to know that each and every school has both significant strengths and weaknesses.

There is--I'm just going to say this--no way to uniformly educate the children of America. Geography, finances, quality of teaching staff, and so on ... it's just not possible to enforce uniformity.

And that's okay ... because the biggest obstacle facing American children in 2015 is none of those things.

Nope, my theory is that the detriment to American schoolchildren is their families.

Wait, their families? Not the Common Core? Not teachers on strike? Not shoddy materials? Not shabby facilities?

That's right. Their families.   

I learned early on that, when I asked my eldest daughter, Emily, how school was, the inevitable answer was, "Fine." It took me a few years, but I eventually learned to ask direct questions. What was on the history quiz? Are you enjoying Of Mice and Men? What music are you playing in band? It was harder for her to give monosyllabic responses to that.

And then Ari came along, and she couldn't talk about school enough. Well, let me rephrase that ... Ari couldn't talk enough about the social aspects of school. The kid should have written an elementary school gossip magazine. However, I'd learned from her stoic sister that specific questions led to discussion, so I ended up hearing all about her classes as well.

Yup, it was pulling teeth to get any sort of curriculum conversations going with either of them, excellent students both ... and I'm a teacher.

I wonder sometimes how many parents want desperately to talk about school with their kids, to analyze Steinbeck and conjugate Latin verbs and weigh the pros and cons of the Vietnam conflict. I suspect the number is large, even for those that never have said conversations. Children can be tough nuts to crack, and if school is their private world they might well want to keep Mom and Dad out of it.

I persist, though, and I think a lot of parents do as well. I have a fairly good idea of what's going on with each of them, even though Emily is in college now (hating her astronomy class, disappointed in her language acquisition course, and learning lots in history of the English language) and Ari is a middle schooler (exponents in math, warning sign identification in science, the story behind their first name in Language Arts).

It would be really easy for me to say, "I'm an involved parent. I talk to my kids about school, even digging for details. I check their homework. They ask me for help when needed. I am so involved it's not even funny." 

Except that's not precisely true.

Personally, I hate big crowds of people I mostly don't know. Going to open houses and festivals and concerts and such bring on anxiety attacks. I know Ari would like it if I volunteered at her school (if I had the free time) or took her to middle school football games or encouraged her to have friends over. Sometimes I can even handle this, but much of the time, I can't. 

Also, I could stalk the online grade program and/or e-mail her teachers all the time, but I don't want to be a pain.

Overall, though, parental involvement should not be a concern for me, right?

Wrong again.

Parental involvement is a problem for everybody!

The biggest problem shared with me by both Emily and Ari is one and the same: the other kids act like monsters and keep the teacher from being as effective as he or she would otherwise be.

You might say, the teacher should send the kid to the office. The teacher should call home. The kid should be punished. This shouldn't be allowed.

Sadly, these kids have missed out on a lot of learning when they languished in the office. Phone calls home run from, "Well, he says you have it in for him!" or "Everyone else was throwing spitballs, too" to, "That's a school problem. I have a hard enough time dealing with him at home." 

Because those parents enable, make excuses for, or give up on their children, my children miss out. 

Is that fair to my children? No ... but yes. You see, my children have had to learn to extend their education on their own. Instead of being one of those obnoxious and overbearing parents that call teachers the second week of school and say, "My child is bored", I strive to teach my kids to read more, to list questions about topics in history class that we can discuss as a family later, to write in a journal. My children are bright and successful, but I would never extol them as special snowflakes.

Parental involvement is a multi-faceted thing. It's not just talking to kids about school. It's not just having sports dates and days off written on the calendar. It's not just going on teacher websites. It's not going to school events, whether you want to or not.

It's all of those things, and it's more.

As a parent, I raise my children fully aware that their teachers are playing a role in their upbringing as well. As a teacher, I buy everything from lunch to deodorant to tampons to notebooks to sneakers for my students. I teach them English, but I also teach them manners and respect.

But it's an uphill battle.

Until parents are unified in their view of what education means for American children in 2015, the problem will exist. In fact, it will get worse. Parents work long hours. They are too tired to attend school events. They might not have transportation, and it's increasingly common for parents uncomfortable with speaking English to avoid going into schools out of fear and discomfort. Kids are seduced by drugs and gangs and horribly short skirts from American Eagle. 

The only way for education to be equalized is for parents to become fully invested in their children's schooling. Only then can we all work together to provide a high quality, equal education to every student.