We're #1… And I Feel Guilty

Newsweek posted its annual “500 Best High Schools” report.** Immediately after the list was published, my local district posted the results in its Fall 2011 Newsletter which indicated that one high school in the district ranked #73 and the other high school came in at #99.

That day, I went to the grocery store. And as I shopped, I ran into folks who were all in a tizzy. Here’s a sampling of what I heard:

How did our school drop from last year? And why is their school better/worse than the other school? And why didn’t our school make the list?

Meanwhile, I kept my head low and kept pushing my cart.

While other people griped, I was content. I mean both high schools in my district made the top 100 list in Newsweek.

Last week, my entire district was just ranked #1 in the State by this report that came out on October 27, 2011.

Awesome, right?

But I’ve been thinking about these lists.

About what they do to us.

How they make us anxious/frustrated/furious/complacent/content.

They get our attention, get us to react, get us to blame, point fingers, worry, obsess, gloat.

And even though I can now wear a t-shirt that proudly proclaims that my child attends the #1 public school district in New York State, there’s something that is making it impossible for me to ride get on my magical unicorn and fly away.

The district deemed “worst” in New York State is also right here in Rochester; The Rochester Public City School District, a District that serves over 32,000 children, came in dead last at #431.

Never has there been such disparity between the haves and the have-nots.

At my nephew’s graduation back in June, the administrators noted that the Class of 2011 was exceptional. Graduating seniors had received astronomical numbers of dollars in academic scholarships. It was surreal. Collectively, their SAT scores were redinkadonk. Sitting in that huge field-house surrounded by well-dressed, well-fed, financially secure families, I felt hopeful. I think everyone did.

In September 2011, The Wall Street Journal reported:

The results from the [2011] college-entrance exam, taken by about 1.6 million students… revealed that only 43% of students posted a score high enough to indicate they were ready to succeed in college, according to the College Board, the nonprofit that administers the exam.

When I read that report, I read its inversion: 57% of students are not prepared for college level work.

And I knew who they were talking about.

On the second day of this semester, I administered a written diagnostic to my Composition-101 class designed to determine if students could write a basic essay on-demand.

Guess what?

I don't like to fail people. But sometimes I have to.

About thirty percent of the class failed the exam.

What’s the big deal?

I’m glad you asked!

In the last four years that I have worked at my local community college, I have learned a lot about the demographic of my students. Most of these students are not as fortunate as the children in my home district.

Many did not graduate high school. Some do not have money for breakfast or lunch and eat out of vending machines. I have had homeless students; one admitted to me that he had been hiding and sleeping in Wal-Mart right before he was caught and arrested. I have students who look down at their shoes when asked to read aloud because they can barely read. I have had students whose mothers are abusive and whose fathers are in prison.

Some students are civilian veterans; folks who have served in the United States military and are now returning to the classroom to try to focus on academics after multiple overseas deployments. Some claim some kind of disability status; and for others, English is not to primary language spoken in the home. Too many come from families whose annual median income fell below the poverty line.

So what do these lists tell us?

They tell us what we already know.

That students who come from an environment where parents encourage education will value education. They will come to school with full bellies, having slept in a bed they can call their own. They come with backpacks stuffed with all the required materials and minds that are ready to learn.

Children who grow up with some kind of interference — whether it be emotional, cultural or fiscal — will have to work harder to get where they want to go. It’s not impossible, but it’s harder.

I hate this enormous social disparity.

Pointing out the disparity in reports and newsletters doesn’t seem productive, nor does it seem to result in changes for the people who need them the most.

Here is what I can tell you:

Colleges are spending millions on remedial courses to prepare high school graduates for college-level work.

Businesses are having to invest time and money teaching employees basic skills they did not learn in school.

Well-intentioned (but misguided) initiatives like No Child Left Behind as well as our over-emphasis on standardized testing in the core subjects have sent us in the wrong direction. Instead of teaching students to think across the disciplines, administrators have chosen to “cut the fat” — programs like music and art and drama — which are considered esoteric and unnecessary.

And no matter how much I may I want to, I can’t fix students in 15 weeks: not when 12 years of school has failed them.

** Did you see the Newsweek report?

Go ahead and look at it.

You know you want to.

America’s Best High Schools: The List – Newsweek.

What do you think about these lists? Do they get you worked up? Or do they make you feel helpless?

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32 thoughts on “We're #1… And I Feel Guilty

  1. Yes, this. I know this. It’s the stumbling block (one of?) of teaching passionately.

    These words “And no matter how much I may I want to, I can’t fix students in 15 weeks” are perfectly heart breaking, Renee.

    1. Hi Galit:

      I adore my students. My roster started at 28 and I’m now down to 19 students. This is nothing new. It happens each year. But I hate losing students who obviously are overwhelmed by the pace (or the expectations). What am I doing to their self esteem?

      What are we going to do with all of these people who fail out of community college?

  2. I hate lists like these. I hate them because I know there isn’t a school in my county on that list, nor will there ever be. I hate how they seem point out that if you live in a poor community (or county, region, whatever), you are doomed to fail.

    I agree with you on No Child Left Behind. It is the worst thing schools are faced with these days. In my wife’s school, they also have inclusion which is not necessarily a bad program, except that there are students who can and will excel (like Thing 1), but are held back due to a dumbed down curriculum to ensure No Child Left Behind.

    1. Hi Eric:

      I hate to tell you, but it’s about to get worse with “The Core Four.” No one outside of education seems to know much about this new initiative, but I’m afraid that we are going to look back at No Child Left Behind and think, “Those were the good ole days.”

      Most states have already jumped on board or else they would have been denied money.

      Ah, the politics of education.

      1. Let me guess, “The Core Four” is Reading, Math, Science, and Writing? Forget about art, music, gym, social studies, geography, etc.
        Something like that? States (or school districts) need to step up and say enough is enough. Forget about Federal funding, and actually teach the kids. I know that will probably never happen in many areas (definitely not in my area), but it should.

        1. You are pretty close, Eric.

          They are talking about English, Math, Science & Social Studies.

          Information about The “Common Core” National Standards can be found here:

          To date, every state (except 6) has bought into this new program. Yes, funding would have be pulled if states chose not to participate.

          Part of its mission statement reads:

          The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers.

          And you are correct: So far as I can see, there is absolutely no mention of music, gym, art or drama.

          Why does everyone have to fit down the same chute?

  3. Your points? All valid. Every one of them.

    I don’t have much time to comment, but I will say this.

    My school district was a “good” one growing up. I went through pre-No Child Left Behind (are we done with that crap yet? doesn’t it have an expiration date?).

    Whether or not I learned anything in a class boiled down to a single thing: the teacher. It has always been this way for me.

    If they sucked? I didn’t pay attention. I retained nothing. I wrote notes. I daydreamed. I did homework from one of my harder classes.

    If they were awesome? I took every class I could they would teach, even if I didn’t care about the subject.

    If the teacher was good, I didn’t care if I had to work my butt of in class, In fact, those were the classes I enjoyed the most. The ones I actually learned in.

    I had a teacher in college that somehow made statistics for psychology FUN. I was shocked. I had another one who could send 80% of the class into a coma for a Love Emotional psychology class because he was drier than a the desert in winter. And it wasn’t even an 8 AM class.

    Challenge your students. If you’re testing to “see where you’re starting from”, tell them. Tell them you think for many the previous 12 years failed them, and if they stick with you, you will do your best to help.

    As one who has had friends in community college, I know they often dropped a class for reasons completely unrelated: i.e. job conflicts, family, etc.

    I think I would thrive in one of your classes. 🙂

    1. The teacher is crucial — assuming you have had a good night’s sleep in a warm house and that you’ve had breakfast. Assuming you believe you are worthy of love. Assuming you believe you are able to be taught. That you aren’t stupid, that you can learn, that it is not too late for you.

      And yes, students in community college drop out for lots of reasons — as you say — but many come from places of interference.

      They have to work. They have families. These are often things that have happened before they started school. Babies before age 18. My nephew can go to college and just enjoy the experience. He doesn’t have to worry about putting food on the table or if he has the skills to succeed in the first place. He can just exist.

      Others have to worry about the holes in their educational tapestry on top of all the other stuff.

      So, yes, the teacher matters …but at the college level…I can’t fix them.

      Nor should I be expected to.

      1. I didn’t mean to imply you could fix them.

        Only teach them.

        Even with distractions, you can really teach them while they are there.

        The difference between those “with distractions” and those without, is they really want to be in school. They want the education. They might have to fight to get it and juggle along the way, but they want it.

        Compared to say some of the more privileged who are at school on someone else’s dime to party. That isn’t all of them, but it is true for many.

        Like I said, I’m not disagreeing with you, but at the same time, you are blessed with those who really want to learn. Use that.

        Because really good teachers can make an impact, even if the student is distracted.

        But yes, the system is broken, and really needs to be fixed.

        1. Kelly:

          I try to teach them, to challenge them.

          I really do.

          I JUST got off the phone with a student who was almost there.

          A girl with a quavering voice who hasn’t been to class in days, and I emailed her to let her know if she misses once more she will be withdrawn.

          She told me she is going to drop the class.

          During the course of her life, she has moved around a lot and attended a lot of schools. She has holes in her educational fabric.

          She never learned how to write an essay with paragraphs, let alone a research paper with in-text citation and a Works Cited page.

          This is not the worst of it, however.

          The worst part is that I know she felt stupid.

          I spent an hour on the phone with her.

          Advising her.

          Trying to help her figure out what she wants to do with her life.

          She doesn’t like school.

          She was just told by her high school counselor that she was supposed to go to college.

          For something.

          This, I believe, is the worst injustice.

          She doesn’t like school yet she is paying for an education — and there are so many things she really could do that don’t require a degree!

          I tried to reassure her that she is NOT a failure.

          That things will work out okay.

          This is the stuff that breaks my heart.

          So now I’m down to 18. 🙁

  4. Speaking from across the border…

    When we were hiring, we avoided American college graduates. It was just too dangerous. You never knew whether the person with the diploma had earned it, or had, well, I’m not quite sure how some of the people I saw graduated.

    This wasn’t true of the older generation. This is a problem that you have with graduates that are 35 and under. After 35 it goes away, because most people will have had enough opportunity to learn what they missed in real life.

    It is really scary. If the United States doesn’t start investing in children, it may never recover.


      1. There’s no chance that politicians would pay teachers more than they get paid. Even if they kill the country.

        We have our problems here too, but I’d recommend if you have school age kids to try for refugee status in Canada.


  5. This is an excellent article Renee. Although I am aware of the problems in education in this country, your compassion comes through in your unique perspective. Well done!

  6. The teachers are still blamed for the 57%. In Miami there are pockets of astonishing achievement but the 57% is probably closer to 80%. Except for AP my honors 11th graders were about 2 years below grade level and regulars were 2 to 5 years below grade level. Reading. They still will not accept the terrible social conditions that hold kids back as qualified. “Everyone can learn.” Yeah, right. When half the housing complex is on crack and gunshots rule the night. Yeah, right. I remember Renee that we may have disagreed before on this, but they have everyone on the college track and not everyone performs and learns at that level. I have a BA and two MA’s and cannot do eighth grade algebra. They just increase the drop out rate and not only are they not ready for college, they are not even functionally literate for even low skill jobs having dropped out at 16..

    1. I think we are closer to agreeing than disagreeing. I have often said that middle & high school is the ONLY TIME in life where people are expected to be OUTSTANDING in everything. I don’t think most people are programmed like this.

      And I think you and I would both agree that some people aren’t programmed to be academics at all.

      Some people actually hate school. They would prefer not to sit in a classroom, but would rather do something else. They might excel in vocational schools, technical schools, trade schools. Whatever you want to call them. Many students would likely do well in these areas, but now they are going to college first — only to learn later that they are going to work in the produce department of the local grocery.


      Why are we doing that to people?

      Shouldn’t everyone be able to read and write competently prior to graduation from high school? If we can’t get people to do that, we are truly sunk. It’s not fair to make students pay for additional education they should have received in K-12.

  7. You hit the nail on the head, Renee. Kids with parents who care tend to excel. Those with parents on crack, in jail or actually absent are almost guaranteed to fail. More and better paid teachers, standardized testing and all the other things we waste money on will never overcome this problem. Until parents take an interest in their children, teachers and administrator will be impotent to correct the problem.

    One thing I think we can do to help is QUIT making college sound like the panacea. We need to present trade schools in a more favorable light. Getting a degree from Lincoln Tech or other trade schools should be treated as being as important as a college degree. After all, you know what three out of four people with BA degrees say – “Do you want fries with that?”

    1. David, I am soooo with you.

      Tradesmen and women make loot. Ask any plumber or HVAC person. They are doing great. Plus, they can open their own businesses. And they can live anywhere. Not bad, huh?

      And just for the record, the dude who cuts and colors my hair makes a killing. He went to community college, left, and got his degree in cosmetology. People love him. He has his own salon and a long wait list.

      He is his own boss.

      Isn’t that success?

      College is NOT the panacea.

  8. I was lucky and attended a high school where the graduation rate was somewhere around 93%. When I moved to Florida many years ago, and go a job at the United Way of Palm Beach County, I was asked to find the graduation rate for the County to use in a report. I found that it was 52%. I thought it was a mistake. I showed it to my boss, and her response was: “Yes, that looks right.” I was shocked. 52% in Palm Beach County.

    1. Larisa:

      Carl lives in Miami, not too far away from you. He tells me about these statistics all the time.

      They are heart-breaking.

      I have a million ideas on how to fix things, but they involve revolutionizing education.

      Smaller class-sizes (because, no matter what any of the studies say, it really does matter).

      We go back to some kind of tracking system where kids who want to learn are with kids who want to learn. And we make sure that the best from all ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds are represented.

      We create year-round schools with schedules that are broken up totally differently. We have to get off this crazy “harvest summer” schedule which is so outdated. Kids need shorter, more frequent breaks instead of one giant long summer.

      Oh, I can hear the groans, but America has to understand what taking nearly 9 weeks off during the summer does to a person’s brain.

      I’d opt for 2 weeks off, scattered here and there. I could go on. But I won’t.

      I’ll save for another blog. 😉

  9. I have so much to say about this but without creating my own blog post, I can’t cover it all…

    I taught at an affluent, successful, high scoring school and my kids attend one (two different districts side-by-side). Both schools are public (a whole other topic) and we have a 98% graduation rate with a very high percentage of students seeking some kind of college education after high school.

    Parents fall over themselves to volunteer, donate, seek tutors, gather up all educational resources available to them; they know their rights and the rights of their children to receive accommodations; they can and do drive teachers CRAZY with their concern.

    And their children, by and large, succeed.

    It’s important to note, however, that both these schools have small percentages of low-income earning families and many of the language learners already have a firm grasp of English.

    However, since we live in southern California, there are schools all around us with contrasting demographics: immigrant or migrant populations with lower income, questionable language skills and a sometimes vastly different set of expectations when it comes to schooling.

    Although these parents often respect teachers more than the higher-achieving schools, their children sometimes cannot or don’t receive the same level of at-home support.

    It is not fair. You are so right.

    And I can’t pretend to know the solutions. But I will say that droves of families are pulling their kids from the local public schools and opting for private even though our public school records are often exemplary.

    And FREE.

    I think we need a series on this subject, Renee.

    It’s so very hard when you’re a teacher who cares.
    And even harder when you’re a parent who cares.

  10. It might be that Li’l D’s too young for school yet, but I’ve not yet paid attention to those lists. I do recall looking at law school listings when I applied for law school, and being excited where UCLA fell on the list when I got my acceptance, but it was passing. Mostly because I hadn’t gotten in to Boalt–not that I expected to! 😉

    Educational disparity depresses me. In one of my college courses, I was startled to find that only 2% of the student body came from a childhood income bracket whose upper limit was double my mom’s single-parent annual household income.

    Then, in law school, I took a class on education law. As part of that class, I had to visit two San Francisco schools ten minutes from each other on public transit. One school had tattered books, crumbling architecture and long-term substitute teachers. Its students were, with one exception, non-white.

    The other school had all Asian and white children, abundant computers, and full-time credentialed teachers.

    I was thankful I’d grown up in Eugene, Oregon, where the discrepancies weren’t so pronounced. But I couldn’t be too thankful, because that’s a whole lot of children being disadvantaged straight out of the gate.

    It’s with all these things in mind that I can’t decide whether to laugh or cry when people say with a straight face that we all start with equal educational opportunities.

    I just don’t even know how to find transit to their planet to begin conversation, you know?

    1. “It’s with all these things in mind that I can’t decide whether to laugh or cry when people say with a straight face that we all start with equal educational opportunities.”

      Well put, Deb. Sometimes when people say things like that I want to punch them in their throats. But usually I smile and say something like: “Funny, that’s not been my experience.”

  11. Yup! That has not been my experience either, Renee. We just have to keep getting the message out that all children deserve the best, and let the chips fall where they may. I took a couple of Wegmans bags filled with books and games to a city school where I tutored. The principal and school secretary both told me that they had just talked about the need for new materials for the Reading Partners Program. Two bags of my very gently used books…one would think that it was Christmas morning watching those two go through my cast-offs… Principals, teachers, school secretaries, and kids shouldn’t have to wait for anyone’s cast-offs.

  12. I have so many thoughts about this – too much to write here. It’s so frustrating. My daughter (who does really well in core subjects) is inclined towards band, vocal, art but has to let some of that go because of the core requirements. Like you said, why must every kid fit down the same chute? They are all so different and we need to start looking at children more individually.

    And I love what Deb said, about equal educational opportunities. Some children start out with huge hurdles…

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