Thursday, January 27, 2011

Educational Guerillas, Parachute Vouchers, and Why Schools Aren't the Problem

Just a few quick words on that word, "geurilla."  It's from the French word geurre, and all it means is "fighter."  But the implication that goes with it, by association with years of use to describe less-formalized fighting, is that of a freedom fighter, a warrior engaged in a less formal but nonetheless very real battle.

Take a minute or two to read the news article here.

The lady in question is a mom watching out for her kids.  She lives in a rougher end of town and is perfectly aware of it.  Her dad lives in a nicer end of town and she's perfectly aware of that, too.  Being no slouch above the eyebrows, she sends her kids to a school in the district where her dad lives.  If the kids lived with her dad, there'd be no story here at all.  Everything would be above board, her kids would be safer and receiving a better education, and eventually we'd be finding out about this story when somebody went up to Oslo to receive his/her Nobel Prize.  Everybody lives happily ever after.

Except they don't.  Not here.  For starters, the school where her kids were going hired an investigator to dig up where her kids were actually coming from.  Boom, caught.  Long story short, she's hauled in to court on a FELONY charge - not clarified exactly what kind of felony in the story - and ultimately sentenced to jail!

All this for wanting her children to receive a higher quality education.

Looking up "felony," we find that it can cover such things as false pretenses, which would apply here.  She's stating that her kids are residents of the school district when they're not.  They're using up tax revenue in a district where their family doesn't contribute to the tax base.  So that's a no-no and certainly actionable in the legal system.  Not only that, but she's a law student - I would expect someone with that kind of horsepower in the brains department to know better.

But she's a mom too - you fight for your kids.  Sometimes wisdom takes a back seat when your kids' safety is at stake.  The claws come out, and Mommy Lioness is in the fight.  She saw the bad neighborhood, the poor-performing schools, and took the action she could to get them into a better place.  It worked, at least for a little while.  A little peeking into the records, a little digging into the tax rolls and the house of cards came tumbling down.

Here's where I get a little annoyed, though: why did the school district hire an investigator?  Were they tipped off, overhear something in conversation, what was it?  Were the kids just too black to be local?

By the way, if I have to be white, nobody gets to be African-American.  Keep calling me by my skin color, and that's the kind of label we're all going to use.  And I'm not "Caucasian," either.  I don't even know what the heck that is.  I'm Minnesotan.  Absorb that, demographers.

Back to the point.  Investigator discovers that the family isn't in the school district.  Mom gets called up on falsifying records, court, hoosegow.  Sentence reduced from five years to 10 days, so there's some understanding on the court's part but now her nascent law career is completely shot down.  That felony conviction doesn't ever go away.  Disclose that on a job application and most places just stop talking to you: "Thanks for stopping by, we'll call you if anything opens up."  It never opens up.  She has a chance at finding a friendly law firm and making a career as a functionary, but no shot at a future as an attorney, not now.

All this for wanting her kids to have the best she could give them.

You could ask, why didn't the school say, "laudable goals, citizen!"  Tell her to take her kids back to their neighborhood and put all that effort to work in her own demesnes?  Why take it all the way to court and utterly ruin her future that way?  Where is the percentage there?

You'll pardon my harshness but all this does is make the school district look like serious jerks.  Yes, they're justified.  That doesn't make it just.  You're supposed to fight for your kids, you're supposed to demand the best of the school system.  To be trapped in a school system that's failing and have no opportunity to get out, to seek a better one, doesn't feel right.

I used to not know where I stood on things like school vouchers.  Now I do, and I'm firmly in favor of it.  I'm also firmly in favor of pouring more money and effort into education for the sake of the schools to prevent them being vouchered all the way to emptiness.  Let me explain why:

The voucher system is a harbinger of failure.  It's a parachute, an escape system.  You strap on the voucher system and bail out of the failing school.  Okay, your kids are out of the failing school: great.  Now what?  Now all those kids, whose educations are already hampered by experience in a below-average system, are pulling down the averages at other schools until those other schools' experience and skill can get the kids up to par.  Also great, but then - what about that first school?  The kids are gone, so no point keeping the teachers.  The teachers are gone, so no point keeping the school.

The voucher system cannot function as a permanent solution.  It's only a temporary spare you strap on until you get the school bus's regular wheels back on and functioning properly.  These things take money money money, and LESS TESTING.

You heard that right.  Demanding that teachers meet a test's criteria means they will teach their students how to pass the test.  Regular education gets punted to the sidelines while the tests get all the attention.  Should the test be part of a regular educational curriculum?  Well, that's not up to the school board anymore, is it?

It's better to teach the kids how to think, how to learn.  Instead, they're being given material that covers these idiotic standardized tests and nowhere near enough of how to be Americans, thinkers, learners and ultimately taxpayers.

I test great.  GREAT.  I consistently knock the ball out of the park on standardized tests, including ones for subjects I never studied.  My kids do too.  But I work with a guy who tests lousy because he freezes up on tests.  Ask him about his favorite subjects and he can bend your ear all day on minutia, subtleties you never imagined.  Put all that in the form of a multiple-guess test however, and that river of knowledge just dries right up.  Standardized tests don't allow for that.

Increased testing loads, increased pressure to perform to a standard isn't what the teachers in these underperforming schools need.  Far from it: they're trying hard to perform where they already know the cards are stacked against them, calling them out when their school doesn't perform above an arbitrary threshold is like shaming the warriors of a forlorn hope.  Their kids are coming from chaotic home lives, probably improperly fed, probably improperly supported and monitored in their at-home hours.  Some of the children are parents themselves at a young age.  Of course they don't learn well, they've got too many other things on their minds.  Teachers in that environment are heroes without capes, get the stupid tests out of their faces and let them do their jobs.

The kids are the important part of this whole raft of issues.  Their safety, their future's security, their health, their education.  Holding any part of that hostage for political reasons, because it's too expensive or too difficult or nobody knows how is foolish.  The kids are the next generation of inventors, workers, doctors.  Tax income in the future comes from tax revenue invested in the kids today, more and better taxpayers down the road come from better educated, happier, healthier kids today.  It's selfless to watch out for them for their own sake, it's selfish to watch out for them for ours; whichever way you look at it, the needs on both sides of the table are addressed by doing everything we can to assure our kids are safe, healthy and well educated.

What's needed is more and better law enforcement in the neighborhoods.  Cull out the gangs, get rid of them.  Fix the homes.  Teach better sex education - keep morality out of abstinence-only programs if you want the kids to keep listening - and stop harassing the schools.  The school isn't the cause of the poor performance, it's a symptom.  If you want the school to perform better, you have to improve the entire neighborhood around it.

The reason it's so much more attractive to attack just the school is that it's one building where just a few people work.  You can hold their feet to a much smaller fire for a much smaller bill.  It's easier.  Like doctors with certain diseases, the inclination is to treat the symptom while the body heals itself.  The only problem is the symptom they're trying to treat is a melanomic eruption.  The whole neighborhood is the source of the problem; fix the neighborhood and the school will improve.  Don't stop working on the school, but don't pile on it so much, either - the folks there are already trying hard.  Now the neighborhood has to be brought up, too.

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