February 1, 2015

A Time for Re-Education

If you've been paying even a little attention to the news over the past year or so, whether you're a parent of a school-aged child or not, you're likely familiar with at least some of the topics below :
  • Common Core and Race to the Top (and before that, No Child Left Behind)
  • Teacher evaluations, teacher effectiveness, teacher tenure
  • Discipline, school violence, restorative justice
  • Standardized testing, teaching to the test, treating all kids the same
  • Property taxes, state aid, and education funding 
  • Charter schools
  • Drop out and graduation rates 
  • Parent/guardian involvement
There are defenders and detractors for each of these, all of whom would tell you that they have the best interests of the students in their hearts and minds -- and most of them probably honestly think that they do. The problem is that, while the adults go back and forth on these issues, sometimes changing their minds with each shift in political winds (and money), millions of students are being impacted.

As I noted last fall, the students are the canvas on which all of the rest of us paint. 

Some of them really want to learn, really want to get an education, really want to have a career or go to college (or both), really want to be successful. At the same time, there's another portion of the student population that cares much less about those things, and may be only going through the motions, passively waiting to age out, or actively seeking to get thrown out. 

If you plot the students that thrive and the ones who truly don't want to be in school on a bell curve, they're likely going to be the top and bottom five-to-fifteen percent.  And in between them are the 70-90% for whom our educational process can be a deal maker or a deal breaker. The ones who could go either way.

The ones for whom caring, engaged parents/guardians, good teachers, a strong curriculum focused on concepts and practical applications of them, options for different learners instead of cookie-cutter programs, safe and well-designed classrooms and facilities, and fair educational funding, can truly change their lives for the better. The same students, when faced with the opposite of those things, can just as easily go the other way.

Most teachers, administrators, Boards of Education, and yes, even bureaucrats and politicians, know that not all students learn the same way, have the same aspirations, take tests equally well, come from equal socioeconomic backgrounds, or attend schools that offer equal opportunities.  And yet, it seems that what we hear about is exactly that, the cookie cutter approach that does treat all kids the same, setting many of them up for failure.

Locally, we face the challenges listed at the top of this post, as well as others. Many are common to other large urban districts, such as poverty, crime, school violence, higher than acceptable dropout rates and lower than acceptable graduation rates.  But there's more:

  • The local teachers union has zero confidence in the superintendent, and demonstrated this very publicly by walking out of a school board meeting last year. City officials, on the other hand, tend to support the superintendent. And there's been some flux on the Board of Education as well. 
  • The Syracuse City School District (SCSD) has been accused of institutional racism, with African American students suspended at rates much higher than their overall representation in the district. 
  • About half of all properties in the city are tax exempt, and we've got a huge inventory of abandoned properties, seriously limiting property tax collection.
  • Programs have been introduced to encourage teachers and other 'role model' professions to live in the city, but those programs, not surprisingly, face an uphill battle in the current environment.

Frustration is running high on all sides. And for those of us not in the official stakeholder buckets outlined a couple of paragraphs above, but who are interested in the future of our city and our schools, it's hard to discern if there is a 'right side' to these issues.

I'm not affiliated with the SCSD, not a teacher, not a politician, and don't have kids. I'm just a long-time city resident working with some others to get a better understanding of community sentiment around the SCSD, and perceptions around the key challenges the district faces and where to look for solutions.

A confidential survey has been created, and we are looking for feedback from parents, community members, district employees, students and former students -- all local residents are encouraged to participate, including those who live in any of the suburban school districts.

You can access the survey here.

For readers outside the immediate Syracuse/Onondaga County area, I'm very interested in the state of education where you are. What challenges are your schools facing? What successes can you share?  What are your opinions on the issues outlined at the beginning of this post? Has your district solved any of them?What scares you or encourages you?

Educate us. Re-educate us.