Thursday, November 11, 2010

Parents and Teachers and Together: 936 No More

What do you value? Have you ever wondered if you life tells this tale for you? If you sit down with your family budget, will it show what's important to you?

Mark and I think about this often and the thinking and evaluating helps us to make decisions about what we should or should not do when a choice must be made. If we look at where our money goes, it tells a bit about what we value, what matters to us. For us, faith and education top that list.

I have been thinking about education a lot lately. As a teacher, I knew my work was important. As a parent, I know that in a whole new way. I want my children to have an education that affords them the choices they will want as adults. I want my children to feel confident as they grow and seek to understand the world around them. We take it seriously... and that is not always an easy thing.

With the recent opening of the documentary Waiting for Superman, I have found myself in conversation with many people over the past two months about the state of the education system. It worries me. It breaks my heart.

I know that there are many amazing teachers doing great work in schools all over the country. I am so grateful for their effort... especially when it means that they may have to do that work in a system that makes it feel like they are swimming upstream. The amazing teachers do not worry me. They make me thankful.

What weighs on me is the number of schools that are failing. What weighs on me is the number of children that effects. What weighs on me is the fact that all of those teachers and all of those administrators will get paid anyway. With your money. With my money. And it feels as though there is nothing we can do about it at all.

I believe it is time for change. When is the last time you wandered into the local grocery store, handed over your hard-earned cash, and then did not check to see that you were getting what you expected in your cart? You would NEVER do that. If you purchased a whole, fryer chicken, it would certainly not be okay with you to get a pack of chicken wings!

And yet, when it comes to the same hard-earned cash being paid for taxes and sent to your local school, we feel somehow disconnected from that money. It's just taxes, right? Just taxes. We feel like we have no say.

Wrong. This has to be wrong.

Have you ever googled your state's Report Card? Schools are required to post this information and it is (or should be) available to you. Take a peek. See what you think... I did just that today. It is a confusing site and has many overlapping statistics. But, if I understand it correctly, my home state of Illinois currently shows that 76% of students meet or exceed state standards. Sounds pretty good, doesn't it? (I do worry that the actual standards are not listed on the website though... What is that standard? Hard to know how I feel about it if the standard is 60%.) Or, it looks differently if you think that this very stat means that 24% or 1 in 4 children approximately, does NOT meet that standard. Maybe that is okay given the wide span of learning issues represented in our schools. There are so many different kinds of kids... so many kids who struggle in so many different ways and I am grateful that our public school system enfolds children, even when they need creative ways to learn... So, let's look at it another way. The state reports on "adequate yearly progress". I can't say I love the term because I know I want better for my child than "adequate". How does Illinois rate in this way? Do we pass? The report shows that there are 3910 schools in this state, 2253 of which made adequate yearly progress. I believe this means that about 1657 schools did NOT make the progress expected by the state. The report also points out that 791 schools in Illinois are improving... but what about the other 936?

My friends, in this state that I adore, as you sit here right now reading this blog, there are 936 schools failing. Right now, there are real children sitting in real classrooms with real teachers and it is just not working. The learning we MUST offer our children is not happening. The standards set forward by those in positions to set those standards are not being met. It scares me to think about how many students that actually effects.

We can sit together today and talk about why. We can wonder and chat and carry on about it all but I have to wonder if any of that makes a difference in the lives of those kids. You see, this isn't theory. This is real life. And whether it is because of money, or unions, or teachers or location or situation wont really matter when those children graduate and cannot read or write. This is not a time for pointing out how great some educators are or how little we appreciate the success stories in Illinois. Both of those things are true. There are great teachers in Illinois and many success stories and those teachers and successful schools have earned our appreciation. But, these points do not negate the fact that in some schools, in way too many schools, standards are not being met. Remember, this is real. This is current. These children exist and are not theoretical. They are sitting in a real classroom right now. Real children who mean as much to their mommas as your little ones mean to you. Real children who will grow up and decide the direction of this country... who will have children of their own and who will have to find a school for them, too.

This matters to me. It matters to me that my children get an education they can use. It matters to me that we, as a country, come to value that in a way that expects change from all schools... especially those 936. And this might be the time for us, as parents, to say "This is enough!" and demand better from those who need their expectations to be higher.

In the United States, our kids are expected to have 180 school days. In Canada, that number is 194. Our kids go to school for roughly 6 hours a day. Many countries have far longer days. In China, kids spend up to 8.6 hours a day in a classroom and attend school between 190-228 days per year. How can we teach them everything they must learn, everything other children in the world are learning, if we do not have enough time? Do we value it really? Really? If our school day is getting shorter and we are falling in achievement level and our drop out rates are rising and if 936 schools can be failing and yet everyone still gets paid? Is this about year-round schooling? It is not what I am suggesting. But, I know that in my town, kids are home well before 3pm. What would happen if we added only one hour? That is 180 extra hours of instruction... what could we do with that?

Do you feel as stuck as I do sometimes? Does it feel like there is a disconnect between what we want for our kids and what some kids are provided? Do you want more for your taxes? I do. I really do. And I know people will get mad and carry on about unions and hours and work load and salary and... We need to stop. We need to stop being distracted and start expecting more. More from ourselves and more from the schools and teachers that are not doing what we need them to do. Believe me, there is no teacher shortage. If we were able to find the teachers who really do not want to do this job and if we were able to open their positions, I know there are thousands of recent college grads that would do anything for one of their spots. College grads who have spent years dreaming of a classroom of their own. College grads who are brimming with new ideas, young legs and energetic optimism who would love to spend their days with kids who NEED to learn.

That said, we all need to do our part. No one is exempt from raising a generation of children who are really well-educated. As parents, what shall we do? What part do we have to play?

A couple of easy ideas:

1. Read to your child. Find ways to make reading fun. It is a little thing that makes a world of difference. Reading is crucial to a great education. If your child can learn to enjoy it, you are giving them a step up in the process. As a former first grade teacher, I can tell you that this point cannot be made strongly enough. Don't give up, dear friend. Find the key that opens this lock.

2. Help your kids understand how important school is in their lives. Get excited with them about the opportunity they have to learn from their teacher. Fostering a positive attitude in our kids will go a long way toward helping them get invested in their own learning. Speak highly about school, about teachers, about the choices your kids are earning as they seek success in their academic life.

3. Know what is happening at school and get involved. Try to keep up with what is being taught in the classroom and discuss it at home. Looking up the same subject online with your child to help them discover even more about the topic can help them to see how interesting learning can be. Nurturing a love for discovery and curiosity makes a world of difference.

4. Foster learning at home. Turn the TV off after school and offer comfortable places for your child do his or her homework. Snacks and breaks can help an overwhelmed student feel more at ease. In our home, we even encourage the older kids to read and study with the younger kids so that everyone gets involved. And when the TV does get turned on, turn on the captions, too. Seeing the words that are spoken written on the screen helps the details of reading fall into place.

5. Visit school. No matter where you choose to send your child, you should be welcome to visit and help out during the school day. Get to know the office staff by name. Knowing that we are all part of the same community can help people feel connected and improve a difficult situation. And when you visit, every now and then, bring something for the teacher. Even on our tight budget I can share some baked good with the people who spend more time with my children than I do. Watching a teacher feel appreciated is an awfully nice thing.

6. When something is unclear, ask questions. We do not want schools to feel like we are always looking for an issue but we do want to foster an environment of accountability. If you don't understand how or why something is happening with your child, talk to the teacher in a respectful and open way. You are on the same team. Approach the conversation in that way. When the parents and teachers work together, when you do what the teacher requests at home, when you communicate about issues happening in your house, your child will benefit. Guaranteed.

7. If something is not right, follow through. If you see something that is bothersome, do something about it! Whether that is something that relates specifically to your child or your tax dollars (or both!), talk to the school administration and make your worries known. Maybe you do not understand the issue or maybe a change is needed. Until the school is aware of the concerns of parents, change will not occur. It is time for us to work together, expecting more of one another and helping each other meet goals that will benefit our children.

8. See Waiting for Superman and think about the big picture. I know a lot of you already do. Maybe your child goes to an excellent school. That is great! But until all children have access to good education, we all have work to do. You may deeply disagree with this movie and that is okay. The more we hear about all sides of the education issue in the United States, the easier it will be to find ways to fix what is broken. Is the whole system broken? No. But, if there are children in this country who do not have access to education that will open doors in their futures, we must fix the things that are broken.

9. If you know a great teacher or if your child spends the day with one, pat them on the back. Sing their praises loudly! Send an email to the principal and tell them how pleased you are with that teacher! (Principals get LOTS of negative emails... send an email of praise!) Teachers need to know we see all that they do for children. They need to know we appreciate them. Send a thank you note, a baked good, a gift. Tell them face-to-face. The work teachers do on behalf of our kids is hard and when it is done well, it must be noticed. (As a total aside, each year for Christmas, I give a homemade gift to my kids teachers--usually something I canned--and a thank you note that tells the teacher, in great detail, what they have done in the life of my child. I know this means the world to these amazing teachers. Positive feedback is powerful.)

10. Dream with your kids about where a great education can take them. With good grades and a positive attitude, kids have so many choices! Help them to think about all the incredible things they could do with their lives and help them connect the dots. The work they are doing today matters for what they get to do tomorrow! And if you find your child is struggling, help them. Help them. Encourage them and work with them and talk to the teacher so that your children feel like they can keep moving toward those open doors. Discouraged children lose a lot of steam... help them work it through while speaking truth and hope into their young lives.

Do you see? We all have a part to play. Parents and teachers working together to build a community that supports the learning of children for the betterment of society! It is a beautiful picture that is lived out all over the country! But... not everywhere. There are children who need to catch a glimpse of this vision... who need access to better schools... who do not have the options we want for our kids. It is time to take our tax dollars seriously and find ways to help schools that need it. It is time to support the teachers who do amazing work, some with very little, and thank them for a job well done. It is time to find ways to reform the school system in America so that there are not 936 failing schools in ANY state.

When we come to see, teachers and parents alike, that this is a work that we share... that there is accountability both ways... that location or economy should not dictate quality... things will change. And the people who will benefit from that growth and reform are the children. The same children who will someday grow up, and in turn, seek to educate their own little ones. There is a ripple effect here that is worth all the effort, worth all the talk, worth all the work that it will take to do better.

Because really, what do you value? I am asking myself the same question. When I look at my life, at my choices, at my checkbook, do they confirm what my words say is truth? Looks like an easy question... but it is harder than it seems. This is not a topic for finger-pointing because we all have a part to play. And when it's all said and done, the answer will be clear. We will see what we valued in how we all lived and not in what we said.

In our family, value education. But, I know I must do more. What about you?

Blessings on your day.


Stephanie said...

Very well said!
You know there's a problem with the school system when a headline in last night's paper read "Teacher Paid $40,000 NOT to Teach". No lie. You can't make this stuff up. Ridiculous.

Anonymous said...

Love your post Nadia. It's important to consider, Waiting for Superman is done by the same director of An Inconvenient Truth. Be aware it may have the same left leaning flava...