Wednesday, September 21, 2011

School Choice: A Bittersweet Dilemma

Having worked in Title 1 (low-income population) schools all but 2 years of my teaching career, I've seen first hand amazing teachers move to other schools to leave the stress of the abused test scores, the anguish of loosing sleep night after night trying to solve a problem for a child that isn't even school related. I've seen classrooms inspected to make sure the right posters for the reading program are up on the walls. I've seen teachers have to parent first before they can teach. I've seen them stripped of the autonomy and tools that work for their students because the school isn't making AYP. I've seen phenomenal teachers quit teaching all together because they can't handle the feeling of never being able to do enough. I've seen schools where the Parent Teacher Association was only comprised of the teachers. I've seen schools have test week pep rallies to "promote" success on the assessments only to add more weight and stress on the students. I've seen canned reading programs where sixth graders never open a real novel, schools trying so hard to scramble to meet the "mark" in SBAs that they don't teach social studies or science. I've seen and been responsible for students test scores who have been in 4 or 5 different schools before my classroom. I've seen students who have only been in English speaking schools for 3 years forced to take the same test as the rest of the kids and held accountable for it. I've seen kids withheld services because the SPED department is the category "bringing the school" down from making AYP. I've seen gifted students held from gifted schools because they lifted the test score average of a school. When I started teaching and NCLB was being put in place I thought these were just dooms day predictions conjured up by those at the extremes. Today it is pure reality.

While people often blame the left for being bleeding hearts and the right for corporate ambition, the bottom line is if you believe in the American Dream, if you believe in Capitalism and the idea that if you work hard your reap the benefits... then the education for ALL students should be equal. Education however is not a capitalist's market. The economic growth model that NCLB is based on does not fit, with all the variables that exist in this realm. The irony is that if you want Capitalism to work you need a little socialism. Like a good education you can't be taught in only one way to have a comprehensive understanding with which to go out and be fully successful in the world. If you are only taught reading through phonics you miss the meaning. There's a balance. We need to find it.

Charter Schools is a hot topic in Congress today, as is the voucher system. A love/hate relationship is what I have with Charter schools. Here are some of the pros and cons about the system as it exists today:

Charter School Cons:
  • On one hand they are seen as public funded private schools for the students of typically educated, and usually middle-class families and up. 
  • Very few charter schools cater to underpriveledged populations. 
  • Usually they require parents provide transportation, or students to take the city bus as opposed to the school bus (kind of an imposing idea for a kindergartner). 
  • Another stipulation that many charter schools have is mandatory parent involvement. This sounds great but rather difficult for parents who work 2 jobs each and may not speak English. 
  • Simply knowing these charter schools and choices exist is an obstacle for many parents. School districts don't tend to want to divert students away from their neighborhood schools for fear of the added costs.
Charter School Pros:
  • Parent Choice
  • Ability to choose the right program for your child's learning style and family's belief system.
  • Fostering innovative thinking in teaching staff
  • Providing testing grounds for best practices
The Voucher Option - is a hot topic as well. This is where the government provides financial assistance for parents to send their children to private, non-government schools. All of the same pros and cons that deal with charter schools apply here.
    My personal dilema - already the toddler parents I see on a regular basis are starting to chatter (our kids don't even start preschool until next year) about where they want their kids to go. They are packing up their houses and moving to neighborhoods with better schools, they are sharing info they've heard about charter schools. The anxiety over getting their kid in through the lottery system is already giving them goosebumps. I want my kid to go to my neighborhood school, even though it is a Title 1 school, serving both my neighborhood and the trailer park near by. I want my child to understand diversity in not just race, but economic status. I grew up a "poor" kid in a wealthy ocean side New England town. BUT I want choice too. I don't want him to be taught through the canned Houghton Mifflin Reading Program the district mandates teachers in Title 1 schools teach with "fidelity." I want to know that there are great teachers that come back to the same school every year and that it isn't just a constantly new crop of rookies because once the teachers get their foot into the district they move on from that school. I want my child to be part of a school with a clear and vibrant vision.

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