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