Parent / Teacher Conference

The pus green painted cinderblock walls stared back at me. Yeesh, another local government-issued cubicle masquerading as a classroom.

A suspended ceiling lurked above my head. Fluorescent lights in it buzzed angrily, one of which winked like a teenager on his fourth Red Bull. Several off-white ceiling tiles sported round, brown water stains as if needing a pair of Depends. Posters scattered on the wall shouted desperate motivational messages over the ennui of the surroundings.

So, this is where my kid spends two hours of her school day. Very asylum-ish.

“Can we sit down already?” Annie, my goth wannabe, droned, bumping against my back.

“We appear to be early,” I said. A group of tables sat to one side where row upon row of desks marched in formation across the linoleum floor, a dull sea of vaguely beige squares with mixtures of brown and black streaks across them. I’d seen toilets with that appearance, usually in public settings, and shortly before the automatic flush carried it away.

“C’mon.” I moved to the table, pulled a chair, and sat down.

My hooded vision of fury and apathy glided across the floor and plopped in a chair next to me. Her glaring eyes swept across the wasteland of the room. “Why are we here again?”

“The D you’re getting in Government. I want to know what’s going on.”
“I told you already. I don’t care about government.”
“Nobody cares about government. Particularly those running it, but you need to know why you get sodomized every April 15th.”
She cocked her head. “What’s sodomy?”

It dawned on me that this was yet another example of inappropriate topics my wife warned me not to mention to Dark and Stormy. “I’ll explain later.” Yeah, I’m going to parenting hell — as redundant a phrase as there ever was.

A figure appeared in the doorway, dressed in a formal shirt, tie, and pressed slacks. I recognized Mr. Cox from the sharply drawn pictures my daughter doodled on her worksheets, minus the devil horns and projectile vomiting. His gray-haired visage pulled up, and he sighed like a prisoner approaching the gallows or a crowded shower.

An artificially whitened smile appeared. “Hello, Mr. Mills.” He extended a hand mechanically.

I pump it. Perhaps the eyes will rotate, or his head will spin, but sadly no such reaction. So, I sighed as well. “Thank you for taking the time to meet with us.”
Mr. Cox slid into a chair without ruffling his starched outer garments.

Truly impressive.

“Not a problem. Always happy to meet the parents of my students.” As Elvira’s gaze continued to laser holes in the tabletop, Mr. Cox attempted to peer past the edges of her hood to make eye contact. “Nice to see you again, Anne.”

This should be interesting. Either she’ll shriek and spider-walk out the door or unhinge her jaw and attempt to devour his soul. Instead, she smiles, or what passes as a smile, and mumbles an, “Uh huh.” The look on her face seems familiar, and I make a mental note to add Miralax to the grocery list.

Mr. Cox, ignoring the daggers tossed in his direction, turns back to me. “Well, let’s get started.” He pulled a sheaf of paper from a manila folder and slid it over to me.
I look at the missive. “What’s this?”

“Everything we’ve covered.” He pushed over a single sheet of paper with a large multi-columned table filled with data. “Here are the scores Annie has received so far.”
The data table was extensive and depressing. Poor scores across the board, particularly on vocabulary.

“I see vocabulary is an issue. How is it being taught?”
“Everything is in a PowerPoint. I give printed copies to everyone to put in their binder.”

I’d seen the overstuffed binder filled with grayish pages with thumbnails of slides, eight to a page. “I haven’t seen a textbook come home.”
“We don’t have one. That’s why I use the PowerPoints.”
No textbook? “How does a PowerPoint replace a textbook?”
“I lecture,” Cox replied.

I flashed Annie a glance, and she rolled her eyes so far that I wondered if she could see the interior of her skull. Nonetheless, based on an unfortunate amount of personal experience, I know lecture bores the snot out of her. “Ah, okay. What are your lectures based on, then?”
“The SOLs.”

As I suspected, my child’s curriculum is driven by Virginia’s Standards of Losers, the locally fermented Kool-Aid, and cyanide homage to the federal effort to Leave All Children Behind. I’m torn whether to laugh or cry at the government-mandated efforts to transform the next generation into academically hollowed-out basement dwellers. “I take it the idea is that everything they learn here will help them pass the SOL test?”

“Yes, but based on what I’ve seen from Anne so far, she isn’t going to pass.” He passed a bunch of papers. “Here is a summary of what the SOLs cover. I’d memorize them.”
My eyes strain to make out the minuscule print. “Uh, okay.”
Cox looked up at the clock. “I have another conference in five minutes.”

I glanced out the door; another parent and child were cooling their heels in the hallway. “Let’s go,” I said, tapping Annie on the shoulder. She bolts upright and heads for the hallway like her ass is on fire. I shook Cox’s hand. “Thanks, I’ll help her study.” I race after my charge, galumphing toward the exit.

Before we reach the door to the parking lot, I catch up with the Queen of Darkness. “Here,” I said, shoving the cheat sheets into her hand. “Memorize this, and you’ll be fine.”

She stared at the papers as if they were used Kleenex. “I can’t force myself to take this all in. None of it sticks.”

Somehow the irony struck me. “Well, at least you know what sodomy is.”

The Paradox of Public Education

Public education is the dog that can be ignored when it is kenneled and quiet, but gets kicked when it barks.  Perhaps it is inevitable that something so readily available and necessary is taken for granted, and treated with contempt and derision, by those who have unavoidably benefited from it.

Now as I write this, I will have to admit I am not a disinterested observer of the sausage making that passes for school budget negotiations.  My wife works in public education, so I have lived her profession vicariously, and  have a vested interested interest in seeing her get paid a few dollars more each year.  I always appreciate being able to better afford the increasing costs of living.  That said, enough is enough.  It is time to end the duck and cover games between the county board of supervisors and school board members.  Flat leveling of school budgets, while politically popular is continuing a trend in existence before the economic meltdown, of shoving many aspiring and experienced teachers out the door, and whittling away at the salaries of those with the determination, motivation, and desire to tough it out.

To no one’s surprise, in the five or more years since the Great Recession, everything costs more, and as a result teacher pay has declined while class sizes and job requirements have increased, making the job more like indentured servitude than a job. But, “a job is a job” you say.  No.  Teaching is far more than just a “job” with pay and responsibilities.  It has a moral and societal impact beyond the localities from which they operate.  Teaching is one of the few jobs in this world that has the scope and scale to move humanity to a better place, and yet it is treated as just another spreadsheet entry– another category to be funded — like paper hats and napkins at a fast-food restaurant.

Fueling the discontent, is the underlying, truly American distaste for paying taxes.  Since public education is a large line item in localities budgets, it gets a fair amount of the angst from those who bristle at the idea of THEIR money going to pay for OTHER PEOPLE to do things which may, or MAY NOT, benefit them directly.  There used to be a time, when shared sacrifice for the greater good had traction in this country.  Sadly, though, that no longer appears to be the case.  The current economic meltdown has peeled the limited veneer separating goodwill, charity, and self-sacrifice, from truly capitalistic, mean-spirited, monetary truculence for anything that smacks of government (taxpayer dependent) spending.  As such, what we see now is a schizophrenic psychosis, where education is recognized as necessary, and reviled for that same reason.  This extends substantially to those whose salaries constitute the majority of a school system’s budget —  the educator (e.g, teacher, or erstwhile new age slave).

To meet demands for competence and certification, educators expend substantial time, energy, resources, accumulating skills (and debt), and yet their reward is to be sneered at as “overpaid babysitters” and “leeches on the public payroll.”  To further demonize these pedagogical hooligans, the convenient myth of the “bad teacher” is promulgated by those seeking to placate a taxaphobic public, thereby rationalizing the need to slash school budgets, and heap “accountability” on the backs of those already overburdened, all in the name of “conservative” fiscal policy and “progressive” educational reform.  This “pro-business” mentality appeals directly to those pulling the board of supervisors strings.  These tea-party wannabes are tuneless minstrels trumpeting the happy facade of “you can have everything you want by paying nothing”.  They are supported in this endeavor by parents who dramatically make noises about how they can’t live without that extra $50 a year, and gnash their teeth in hopes to deflect blame for when Johnny can’t read, write, or think (and now sits in their basement playing a Xbox, and bemoaning the fact that society has failed them).

Why is it that decision makers consistently fail to understand that by not educating kids, or supporting those who do, they — and ultimately society — will pay a higher price in the long-term, for high unemployment, low wage jobs, and rising poverty levels?  You need only look at how literacy rates impact earning capacity to see what the future holds for those who don’t get educated.  And even for those who do get “educated”, the inability to think critically will mire future generations in institutionalized mediocrity.  Why don’t stakeholders have faith in a system that reaches across economic class boundaries to raise the potential of the next generation? That generation will inherit and have to deal with the consequences of today’s decisions.  The answer, I fear, is that those in charge live strictly in the moment, like people locking their doors while the house is on fire.  We need to open our eyes and look to the horizon, and see the harvest of trouble we going to reap from the poor decisions with which we are sowing the future.

The problem is made worse by what is happening with the declining investment in education.  In particular, where is the focus today in education?  Is it on students, curriculum, or critical thinking?  No.  It is on the collection  and analysis of data, or in geek-speak “data driven.”  So, what does “data driven” mean (besides being analytic rat hole)?  Twain best describes the basis for such nonsense as “lies, damned lies, and statistics.”  Case-in-point, data can be manipulated to say anything you want, like when George Bush 2 cherry picked information to justify the invasion of Iraq.  Of course, self-justification and high-order foolishness does not need to drive the process, the opposite can be said as well, in that information is collected for no other reason than to justify itself (e.g., the self-licking ice cream cone), and the results of this one man argument can be used to say nothing of importance whatsoever.  Further, with technology, the ability to accumulate digital lint and make superfluous judgements can be done in fancy, colorful bar charts, which rotate and utilize 3D effects while making happy chipmunk noises.  Even better, computers can generate terabytes of useless, distracting and totally misleading information in mere seconds than it took office buildings full of monkeys on typewriters to generate them in the past.

So where is going?  In the race to the top (of the manure pile), education has embraced the “data driven” mantra and is accelerating toward the future of standardized testing and remediation (the combination of lowering expectations and hand-holding), such that once they finish perfecting the educational perpetual motion machine, teachers can be jettisoned from the system, as well as, ultimately, the students too.  Then everyone will be replaced by computers, and a brave new world where machines run everything and we serve them will be at hand.  At that point, I do hope Virginia’s homegrown climate Luddite, Ken Cuccinelli has it wrong, and that global warming exists such that the oceans rise and drown us all.  And if we are lucky, the education computers will be like those crappy iPods that short out the instant a drop of water vapor lands on them.  But then again, I digress.

One of the by products of the current slash burn approach to education funding has been to increase class sizes, and despite those who will gladly tell you that class size doesn’t matter, those who work in the classroom will tell you differently.  Why is there such a disconnect?  For the same reason that inflation is always “under control” and yet  the cost of living is rising higher than the inflation rate — because we aren’t measuring the things that matter, or, in other words, the rules have been written to muddy the reality of what is happening because dealing with the truth is so problematic.  Consider, for example, the state rules for class sizes in Virginia, wherein there will be no more than 24 students per class, which when you read it, would imply that there will be no more than 24 students in a classroom.  And yet, my wife consistently has 30 or more in her classes.  How is that possible, and yet, the school meets the letter of the law?  Well, it is because the calculation the state uses obfuscates the actual numbers in the classroom through numeric smoke and mirrors.  Average class size for a school is calculated from the number of enrolled students, divided by the number of faculty.  So all you need is one faculty member not to  teach any students, along with students in small or individualized alternative education classes, and the ratios get skewed such that you can easily stuff 35 kids in a classroom.  These lecture hall worthy classes packed with underage humanity are little Petrie dishes of trouble for even experience teachers, and for those just coming out of college, it must be like a feeding time at the ape house.  I always wondered why teacher retention rates were so poor, but now I know.  Public education eats its young.

Any attempt to analyze why kids fail to graduate, or learn to think critically has to  extend to the family, and the feathered nest of familial discontent.  Kids arrive at school hungry and tired, many after departing alone from single parent households.  Whereupon students can catch a few hours of sleep during 90 minute cat-naps that pass for class-time, and commiserate with their dealers and fellow gang members.  At the end of the day they slink off to empty homes, with even emptier stomachs and minds, ready to be refilled via late night trolling of social media websites, the haze of illicit and prescription pharmaceuticals, all while the flashing lights of digitized rape and murder courtesy the Internet and video games light up their faces.  Thus prepared, they show up the next day clueless and unmotivated, waiting for teachers who can “fix” them.  And if they can’t be fixed, well then, it must be because their teachers are “bad”.  A teacher can no more “fix” an unwilling student, than a doctor can heal a brain-dead patient.  You have to have something to work with, a commitment and a desire to reach a shared goal.  Without that, a teacher can be no more than a baby sitter, but that is not the teacher’s fault.

And what do we say about the victims of “education”?  Let us consider poor Johnny, the proverbial sacrificial lamb of public education.  Oh how we’ve failed him, his self-esteem destroyed by the tyranny of uncaring, unsympathetic and incompetent educators.  Poor Johnny, doomed to wander the halls of his “failing” school (when he feels like showing up), is habitually unable to turn in assignments on time (because he’s never in class, nor required to).  He is ignored by his “bad teachers” (those that have even the lowliest expectations), and must resort to stuffing his face with fat-laden, high calorie snacks and drinks to self-medicate the stress of due dates and lucidity.  At least he still has his parent’s love, in the form of a $300 iPhone, which allows him to sit in the restroom, during class, perusing naked pictures of his underage girlfriend.  Such a tragedy — truly.

But no diatribe is complete without offering something of a solution, and my solution is probably one that will never see the light of day because it requires two incredibly difficult things: the courage (and character) to do what is right, and to stop kicking teachers in the ass.  So if you want better schools, try fully funding them because sometimes “you get what you pay for”, and if you want better teaching, try giving teachers a helping hand by supporting their efforts, and not by stomping on their necks and telling them to shut up because you “pay their salary”.  If you want fairness and equity, try practicing what you preach.  We all want to get to the same place, in a future where kids have the skills to take advantage of the opportunities that are there; the only question is whether you want to risk paying for that now because ultimately, we will all pay for it later, one way or another.

Why there are no atheists in the classroom

This is derived from a post I saw on Facebook, and tempered with real observations of teaching in public schools.

A teacher being interviewed by an administrator:

‘Let me see if I’ve got this right.

‘You want me to go into that room with more than thirty kids, confiscate cell phones and iPods, stop bullying and sexual harassment, watch for signs of abuse, tell boys to pull up their pants, girls to cover their breasts and genitals, censor T-shirt messages, while instilling a love for learning and respect for authority.

“You want me to either whip out an Uzi or throw myself in front of deranged gun-toting wackos, who can walk off the street into a building with lax security, and few exits.

‘You want me to check backpacks for weapons, explosives, wage war on drugs and sexually transmitted diseases, raise self-esteem and personal pride by celebrating expected behavior, and rewarding mediocrity.

“You want me to encourage maturity and independence in the classroom, but you won’t give me regular bathroom breaks or allow me sufficient time to eat or drink.

‘You want me to teach students how to read, write, do math, understand patriotism and good citizenship, sportsmanship and fair play, and how to register to vote, balance a checkbook, and apply for a job. But you don’t want me to complain about my pay, go on strike, or take a day off, even when I am sick.

“You want me to diversify my teaching, individualise to all 150 students I have per semester, and even tutor them on my time as well as attend extra-curricular events. But you don’t want to treat me like a professional, or even as a unique individual, only as a replaceable widget, a faceless drone of secondary education.

“You want me to document every idea being taught, in every assignment, and whether or not students understand it, and how I am going to reach them if they don’t or won’t understand it.  You want me to do this without having any time to plan, and my schedule filled with administrative tasks that have little or no impact on academics or student achievement, but meet the need of data gatherers who must justify their salaries by making life miserable for those who focus on learning and student success.

‘You want me to check their heads for lice, cigarette burns, signs of cutting, drug use, gang activity and other signs of antisocial behavior, and make sure that they all pass the standardized exams.

“And if kids come to school hungry, from broken homes, suffering from sleep deprivation, with no respect for authority, or desire to learn, and they don’t — or won’t — pass the standardized exams, I will be considered a bad teacher, have my pay cut, or be fired.

‘You also want me to provide students with an equal education regardless of their handicaps, and communicate regularly with their parents in English, Spanish or any other language, by email, letter, telephone, newsletter, and report card. But you won’t talk to me directly, or involve me in decisions that impact my job, or even inform me in a timely manner when arbitrary decisions are made.

“You want me to post grades on the Internet so parents can nit pick why their child did not get the A instead of the A+ they surely deserve, particularly when the parent does the work for them.

“You want me regularly grade student work without requiring them to be in class, and when they do miss class, I am to provide the work they missed so they can make it up, whenever they feel like it, and turn it in the day grades are due.

‘You want me to do all this using resources I have to pay for out-of-pocket, with out-dated technology and text books in the class room, and possibly with just a piece of chalk, a blackboard, a smile, while collecting a starting salary that qualifies me for food stamps.

‘You want me to do all this, and then you tell me……