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Teachers Cannot Cure the Ills of Society

To observe my students descending into the mean of mediocrity is abysmally disappointing for me as a professional, a mentor, and a champion of public education. But it's not surprising.
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I submitted the five-week report cards for all of my students this past week. It's not something I relish. The meticulousness and scrutiny of the task I can accept. But the tinge of inadequacy I feel when confronted with the inevitable reality that nearly a quarter of my students are failing English Lit. and Comp. is tough to handle.

Except this time it was even worse. Not much worse, but bad enough for me to question as to whether or not I've plateaued in my tenth year of teaching at a Title 1 L.A. public school.

Ever the neurotic, I did a mental teacher-man checklist: Am I differentiating instruction? Am I implementing SDAIE teaching methodology, especially for English language learners? Do I give students ample time to complete tasks? Have I established concise and consistent guidelines for classroom behavior? Do I convey clear instructions and expected outcomes for all assignments? Do I treat all kids with equal fairness and respect? Do I maintain a clean, orderly classroom?

And now for the answers: Yes, yes, yes yes, yes, yes, and...somewhat. An inveterate pack rat, I can't seem to bring myself to purge my classroom of the endless reams of student work that engorge my storage closets. Most of it was composed during the earlier part of the decade, so any time you need an exemplary student essay circa 2001 entitled, "Cell Phones: Why They Won't Last," just let me know.

But I don't save many of these essays anymore. The reality is that many of the kinds of students who once were able and willing to transfer their intellectual energy into cogent, coherent compositions have been "outsourced" - to parochial schools, private academies or charter campuses, all of which have the purview to lure the most talented kids away from the public system - while an increasing number of students in the public sector arrive, at various points during the semester, from group or foster homes, from other schools who have disposed of them (the district cheerfully refers to these individuals as "Opportunity Transfers") or from the criminal justice system.

This is not an excuse to quit on the remaining students. But it is yet another reality that is constantly overlooked when evaluating public schools and teacher performance.

Recently, my students' grades have more closely correlated with the LAUSD's dropout rates, which have perennially hovered around 50 percent for the past half-decade. Not that this is any comfort: To observe my students descending into the mean of mediocrity is abysmally disappointing for me as a professional, a mentor, and a champion of public education. But it's not surprising.

Students fail for a multitude of reasons. Not all do so chronically or willingly. But for a significant and growing portion, failure has become habitual, ingrained, and practically irreversible. There are reasons for this. Many of these kids are products of a bruised and demoralized working class, wherein their needs have become increasingly marginalized. As a result, they check out - academically, spiritually, and morally.

In Hollywood films, this is the youth who's portrayed as disaffected and angst-fueled, flailing and railing against all adult authority - the kid who explodes from his seat in a fit of failure-induced frustration, flipping over rows of desks and screaming to the world, "You can't reach me! Don't even try!" while storming from the classroom.

(F.Y.I: He's usually played by Lew Diamond Phillips.)

The reality is that I'd pay a day's wage for any one of these kids to get that fired-up about anything. These are individuals who dread undivided attention, clinging to anonymity whenever humanly possible. I can usually coax some of them from their oversized black hoodie cocoons by the third week or so of the semester with my full-scale assault of friendly ribbing ("The next time you take that iPod out during class, I'm going to replace all your songs with Michael Bolton's Greatest Hits.") and an endless supply of corny jokes.

I do this knowing that it will have an extremely limited impact on their academic future; I do it with the knowledge that, for the most part, their attitudes and actions toward formal education are pretty much indelible at this point and their skills (as Linguistics professor Stephen Krashen would say) "fossilized."

They fail emphatically but quietly and without revolt, indignation, or fanfare. These aren't English language learners unable to surmount the complexities of Fitzgerald or Keroac, nor are they the cognitively challenged, who, despite their best efforts, remain overmatched by the modest rigors of high school academia. They're students who refuse to learn.

Often arriving to school tardy, bleary-eyed, and bereft of basic supplies, they hunker down at their desks, burying their heads deep into folded arms for period-long naps. They stare vacuously at the floor while endlessly fidgeting with key chains or other random tchochkes. During passing periods, they vanish amidst waves of rambunctious peers.

One former colleague of mine used to refer to kids in this mold as "wallpaper." I view them as collateral damage from an egregious failure to address socioeconomic inequities and a the one-size-fits-all federal and state education agendas - generated not by lifelong educators, but by bureaucrats and theorists, whose knowledge and understanding of urban public school students begins and ends with Dangerous Minds. It's a system that exalts mediocrity and all but ignores students on the fringes.

Either way, these are the quintessential "slip through the cracks" kids, a major segment of the overall urban student population that no charter school or private takeover is going to resuscitate.

These are kids who fail most or all of their courses, bubble out the logo for AC/DC on high stakes standardized tests, and ultimately vanish after several years of doing so. They wear different style clothes and sport different hairdos, but share similar behavioral patterns and grade point averages, which often hover perilously close to zero-point-zero.

They play Xbox Live all night, sleep through the first portion of the school day, and shrug when you ask them what their parents think about it all.

"My mom said she's tired of waiting for me in the morning," said one of my students when I asked her why she rarely makes it to my English Comp class. "So I said, 'Good: I don't care.' So now she just leaves without me. Whatever."

They frequently come from homes and entire upbringings devoid of boundaries, limits, attention, and love - homes where the importance of education is rarely emphasized or reinforced in any meaningful way.

"It's not just outright abuse with these kids," says Ronald Arreola, a veteran Biology teacher of nearly two decades, who has been my mentor and colleague since I began teaching in 2001. "Many of them are used to not having an adult who's all that invested in their education. There's no one there to say, 'Hey, what did you do in English class today?' or 'When's your next Math quiz?'" He then added that, even for many struggling students who do have an adult present, "they're almost completely hands-off when it comes to their kids' education."

So are parents really to blame?

If the volume of media coverage currently being deployed to critique teachers who work at struggling schools is any indicator, one would quickly conclude that these coffee-slurping, union-loving, summers off-having slackers are the primary culprits for student failure.
Then again, many of the journalists writing these scathing exposes and editorials on teacher inadequacy fail to acknowledge the origins of this failure, which often continues unabated once they reach high school.

One need only look to the pages of the LA Times, a publication that has ironically taken sadistic pleasure in teacher bashing by accentuating a handful of egregiously poor performers, to discern the correlation between socioeconomic status and student achievement. The following is posted on the LA Times' California Schools Guide, by way of the California Department of Education's web site.

Numerous academic studies have shown a high correlation between economic status and educational attainment.

Also virtually unmentioned in these reports are the added challenges that teachers in disadvantaged communities must confront: In addition to contending with enormous class sizes, they must also address the needs of a growing population of students who are either English language learners, learning disabled, or the "reluctant" learners of whom I speak.

Parents, however, are typically only mentioned glancingly, if at all, and within the context of being victimized by a perpetually faltering public school system. And while the entire community shares the blame for this growing collection of listless adolescents, their parents are clearly getting an enormous pass.

"My dad doesn't care," said yet another one of my students when I asked him what his parents think about him ditching three full school days a week. "Xbox is my classroom."

(As chilling as it is to hear, some of the pithy retorts can be pretty epic. Xbox is my classroom? Pure gold.)

"How do you know he doesn't care?" I asked the same kid - the pithy one.

Without hesitating, he replied: "He told me."

And then there was the student who had just entered my classroom, mid-semester - fresh from jail - who spent full periods glowering at the top of his vacant desk. Noticing he was wearing a crisp Detroit Tigers cap one day, I brought in a stack of my old Sports Illustrated magazines from home to hopefully cajole him into reading something. As I reached to place one on his desk, I asked if he liked sports.

"Nah," he said.

"No, huh?


"Not a Tigers fan?"


"What do you do for fun then? Are you in a band? You like music?"

He nodded and smirked. "I like drugs."

I know these kids. I like these kids. And, as a guy who's never smoked a joint or ditched a class, or even, as a student, pondered the possibility of putting his head down on a desk while the teacher was in the room, I have absolutely nothing in common with so many of them - no doubt to my disadvantage. But their tragic refusal to contribute to their own education, on any level, frustrates me, terrifies me, and forces me to wonder whether the root causes of this unfortunate calamity will ever be addressed - or whether it will continue to worsen.

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