Editor’s note: This is one in an occasional series on educational issues for the upcoming elections.
The story published in 2002 painted educational images I never forget. The ambitious high school student who was told by the adults at his own school that if he wanted to get a decent education, he’d have to transfer somewhere else. The parents who demanded homework and schoolbooks for their kids – and the teachers who found that if they gave homework, almost none of the students did it, and when they passed out textbooks, they quickly were marked up with gang symbols.
There were teachers who came with big dreams, but, with a third of their students reading at third-grade level, had reduced their expectations to the point where the class assignment might consist of looking through picture books and listening to music, for which students received an A. Almost half the teachers lacked full certification. During class time, some of the teachers read the newspaper instead of teaching, and many of the students wandered the campus instead of going to class.
The other day, a colleague and I were talking about the “best” education coverage we’d ever read. Best, of course, is a silly word when it comes to these things. How do you compare a heartfelt feature with an investigation into the Washington. D.C., schools artificially inflating their graduation rates?
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But the conversation made me think once again of this 2002 story in the Los Angeles Times, by Richard Lee Colvin, about Fremont High School in Los Angeles.
Just as the federal No Child Left Behind Act was getting off the ground, this story laid the groundwork for understanding where school reform had gotten its start. Until then, few people realized that low-income students almost invariably got the least-experienced teachers or, worse, the least qualified. Or that frightening numbers of students arrived at high school unable to read.
So today when people bash charter schools or say that schools were so much better before the era of accountability, they might want to consider this story. School reform wasn’t born because things were working so darn well before.
One argument that comes up in the school-reform debate is that kids can’t learn if their parents don’t care. Certainly, parent involvement makes a tremendous difference, but students have proven over and over that they can learn in well-managed schools. Parents might feel intimidated by a system they don’t fully understand, but let’s agree that some parents are falling short. If anything, society – in the form of the school system – should be trying even harder to help the kids who have too little support elsewhere in their lives.
But if the article had only provided a rationale for school reform, it wouldn’t be exceptional. What makes Colvin’s story stand out is that he didn’t shy from complexity. He shows why the reform movement’s tendency to blame teachers is simplistic and unfair. At Fremont High, there were students who didn’t care, or who saw the school and its textbooks as canvases for their vandalism.
Top-down orders on class schedules had little to do with the daily realities of school; teachers were pressured from on high to pass students who hadn’t attended half the classes. Many teachers started talking about leaving – more disruption for the school, and more likelihood of inexperienced teachers entering the school.
And if reform advocates continue to finger teachers as the culprits, they might do more than anyone to harm schools. We’re in a period of full employment. Teachers can find other, better-paid work to do if they can’t find respect in the schools.
This, then, is the story we need to carry forward 16 years later. No Child Left Behind failed because it was rigid and punitive and demonized teachers. But when no one was pressing for change, it wasn’t happening. Our split into rigid ideological camps didn’t start with Donald Trump. It was already in schools and it continues to hold them back as we rehash the same old arguments.
There were things that could be done at Fremont High, and some of them have been done, though there’s a long way to go. I visited the school a couple of years ago; it was a calmer, happier place, especially after it split into smaller academies.
The school was leaning on less-rigorous online makeup courses to graduate students – but I talked with those kids. They were far from illiterate. They were doing real work and doing it independently. They felt the school cared about them, and the very fact that they were there showed it to be true.
Counselors had bothered noticing that rising seniors were lacking certain necessary courses to get into California State University campuses, or didn’t have the grades in a course or two. They’d gotten the students squared away with a solution – a very imperfect solution, but a much better outcome than they ever faced in 2002.
Karin Klein is a freelance journalist in Orange County who has covered education, science and food policy. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kklein100.