Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Not Happy with Oregon Public Schools

After reading this post, I realize the issue is wider than my local school district, so I changed the title. I live in Parkrose and am writing about what I see.

Before I really get to the core issues, know that I appreciate the many quality educators working hard at Parkrose schools. I've talked with many of you over the years and you are appreciated. This post is not about you at all, please know that.

So, what's my beef?

  1. The negative impact CIM/CAM standardized testing has on the ability for educators to actually educate.
  2. In my district at least, a growing bad element combined with a sharply limited ability for the school to properly address the problem.
  3. What's with the poor quality food. Somehow I have never managed to be in the school during lunch time. That recently changed and it stinks! Literally. What are we feeding our kids? Old fast food quickly prepared?

These things are forcing me to consider alternatives and I resent the extra expense they are going to cost when our tax dollars should be providing a solid basic education environment. Something is really wrong and it's growing worse. I've never been a supporter of school vouchers, but that's beginning to change because I'm not seeing the minimum results I need to see for my tax dollars. Kids are important enough that I am willing to do what it takes to raise them right. If that means a voucher system and diminished public schools, maybe that's the right approach if change cannot happen otherwise. I hate to force the issue, but something needs to give. In a nutshell, we need to find a way to address the following, or I'm basically going to begin advocacy for vouchers. I just don't see any alternatives. Your comments on this are welcome and encouraged actually. The schools need us talking about this stuff because it really matters.

CIM / CAM Standardized Testing

I'm opposed to these tests for these primary reasons:

  • they artifically focus the classroom on a fact-based rote education aimed at passing the tests,
  • they do not take into account different learning styles and critical thinking skills; thus removing individuality from public schools,
  • educators are held accountable for more than they have control of,
  • the program is costly and has yet to provide any demonstrable value in terms of educational benefit (where is the Return on Investment?),
  • the incentive to "dumb down" the material presented is higher in a standardized testing environment.
Lets take these briefly, one at a time. My experience with my children, over the last 10 years or so, has seen a increased emphasis on fact based learning a the expense of critical thinking skills. A significant and growing percentage of middle school kids cannot reason as they should be able to at their age. I'm seeing kids tapping buttons on calculators and getting answers but not understanding what those answers mean. Writing assignments are similar. They are being asked to recall facts, but not offer opinion and provide solid support. Education in civic matters is cursory and not adequate for their understanding of what it actually means to be an American citizen. I know that last one is touchy, but should they at least know their rights and how they got them? In short, kids are learning lots of facts (and likely forgetting a lot of them), but they cannot tell me what they really mean.

Everybody learns differently. This demands an evaluation environment that can take this into account, further meaning such an environment cannot by it's very nature be standardized. Interested parents (and yes that's another big problem) educators and kids should be able to all participate in their understanding of where they are and what they have accomplished. This is more than a number on a chart. What about the kid who is highly creative, but maybe is not great at math? They are going to see low numbers and in the standardized environment thus be discouraged from learning because they cannot see progress. What about the kid who can remember anything but lacks critical thinking skills? They might be shown to be doing really well, but will wash out in secondary education. We need to be reviewing more than just ability to output facts and make computations. Standardized tests do not encourage this and that's a mistake.

These burdens hit home in the classroom in a frustrating way for many of the quality educators I have talked to. They are held accountable for many things they cannot easily control. Given a large class size, and diverse skill set they are somehow supposed to manage to achieve uniform testing results? That makes zero sense to me. Further, the tests don't apply each year so a kid can slide backwards for a while, then be tested only to find out they are behind and lack time to catch back up! The material on the tests also forces them to build their class plan in such a way that might not make optimal sense given the students at hand. The amount of material required also limits focus where it might be needed. Ask yourself these questions:

Would you rather your kid be able to read well, write well and understand basic mathmatics if that meant some sacrifice on other facts they can easily get for themselves at a later time given the ability to actually read and think for themselves? Is is really important to know all the nations of the world, for example, but not be able to properly read, understand and consider the information in their local newspaper?

My point here is that we need to stress the ability to learn and reason given the facts at hand, not make sure all the facts are properly remembered if we are to build people that possess the ability to learn and grow on their own.

All of this testing is expensive. Money spent on expensive testing programs takes away from the classroom, resulting in less attention per student. Given less potential student / teacher interaction, the incentive to dumb things down and focus on fact based learning is emphasized. We are not doing our kids any favors in this.

Ok, these are state issues not unique to Parkrose schools. However, I do live here and am going to speak from my experience because that's all I have.

Growing Bad element / limited control potential

This one is a biggie. I've met a lot of the students attending Parkrose Schools. They are good kids working hard for the most part. It's the growing percentage of problem kids that is making things hard on everyone. These kids are why at least two of my children are not going to attend the full course of Public Education our tax dollars pay for. It's our inability to manage this problem that is leading me to support vouchers. The testing issues are not helping either, by the way.

Here is the core problem we need to somehow figure out a way to address our our public schools will see nothing but growing trouble:

Kids today know there is little the school can really do to them. Many kids will not work to do the right things unless doing the wrong ones are not worth doing. All of the limits (I don't know if they are self-imposed or not) on the schools ability to address this are the root of the problem. We need to empower the school to enforce a solid and safe learning environment. Somehow we have forgotten the importance of doing this.

I see kids walking around with cell phones text messaging in class, despite clear rules banning their in-class use. Why are we not checking phones at the door, or confiscating them to be returned during a parent / teacher conference of some kind? The kids do this day after day after day. Why?

Foul language, inappropriate dress, insubordination and other common infractions every kid is tempted to engage in happen over and over and over. Simple parenting solutions, obvious to anyone who actually has been a caring and dedicated parent, are denied to the school, leaving useless options in their place. Ever see those television shows where the detention room is nothing more than a play house? Believe it. I have seen this and it's wrong. When I was a kid, the school used to be able to do more to make bad behaviour not worth doing. Today that's not the case with obvious bad results. Maybe we have too many lawyers working to limit the schools liability and too many parents all to willing to believe the school is at fault when the reality is likely their own parenting and failure to instill fundemental values and expectations?

Little of what I see today would have been tolerated in my own school as a kid. (And it was not even that good of a school.) I'm missing something here and would like to know what it is. We know how to solve these problems, why can't we empower the schools to do so? When I go to ask my school for more aggressive discipline, they grant it and say they cannot do it otherwise without my agreement, I shake my head and wonder why not?

I have not asked for much, by the way. Cleaning walls, maybe some writing or work after school. Nothing big. Just enough to get the kids to think a little and move on. Maybe this is our fault as parents. Maybe the schools could work harder to educate parents a little bit too. Maybe provide ready options and get consent for those kids who need more than the tame options at hand otherwise.

Kids come to school high, they bring weapons, they combine into groups and harass other kids. We know these things, it's nothing new. Why the reluctance to just step up and address them. If I were in charge I would. Would I then be fired? Is that the problem the school sees today? How can we fix this?

What is with the food?

The elementary school lunch room actually stinks. It smells like grease and fat. The kids are eating fast food every day and we wonder about attention and weight problems? School lunches used to be made at the schools. Does farming out this to Taco Bell really cost us less in the longer term? Don't we need the jobs and community involvement? I'll gladly pay for this to happen rather than see my kids eat fast food. Lord knows we do enough of that as a busy family. Do you other parents reading this actually know what your kids are eating and why? I am beginning to reconsider my foul memories of school lunch as a kid. It was better food than we see today!

(That's scary to me, isn't it to you as well?)

Ok, so those are my gripes. I know it's harsh, but I really needed to get this out today. So where do we go from here? I don't know the answers, but I will tell you what I am doing. Maybe you can join me, or tell me what you are doing as well. Together we might achieve change.

I want to support my public schools. Paying a bit more for better schools is one hell of a lot cheaper than what I am doing right now. However, if I can't get the minimum quality needed, I would rather do something terrible like consider vouchers to force the issue. That's the last option in my book. Can we not find alternatives to the issues presented above? They are basic things. We should be able to fix them and move on.

What I am doing today:

  • I'm an involved parent. I set high expectations for my kids and work hard to help them meet those expectations. We are getting it done today, but it's hard and expensive.
  • Advocacy such as what you read here. I talk with educators when I can and other people in the community. I haven't spent time with the school board, but I plan to in the near future.
  • I do not allow my kids to participate in the CIM / CAM program to send a clear message this is not the right path to follow. If you want to join me, let me know and I will tell you how. It's easy to do and costs you nothing. (It does cost the school though.)
  • Volunteer at the school. I do work a lot, but my wife goes to class just to keep the kids in line and help those that need it. With 30 kids in a class, just one or two bad apples spoil the whole lot. This also consumes a lot of time, but it helps a lot.
  • Write your legislators. I do this often. Maybe it matters, maybe it doesn't. I think if there are numbers doing it, then it does matter.

Again, I value the hard working educators at Parkrose schools. Know you are appreciated. We need to fix our schools because the long-term harm is beginning to show in that our future leaders are ill-equipped to actually handle the tasks set before them. Our nation is being diminished as a result.

Comments, ideas, whatever? Feel free to express your ideas and experiences below. Think I am wrong? By all means please tell me why. I want to help and am willing to accept all input because our kids matter.


Blogger jef G said...

I am a parent who has had my fourteen-year-old removed from public school in the last semester.
The local education board and our mental health services can see no possiblity of an future education plan for this boy. He has missed so much school due to his mother's and my illnesses that he has never actually completed a single year of school! As incredible as this may sound it's true. The only alternative that the school and mental health could formulate for his future is to take his G.E.D. at age 16! This is a hopeless situation that cannot be remedied by our attempts at "home schooling" or any public form of education. I am just trying to find an organiztion that can at least provide me with a "starting point" for an educational solution. I realize that this forum may be inappropriate for the type of information I am seeking, but I am desperate to find help before another school year arrives. Jeff Grace Gold Beach, Oregon

June 18, 2005 5:50 PM  
Blogger Doug Dingus said...

Hi Jef. I'm not in a position to help, but did send you a coupla ideas via e-mail.

Thanks for reading OpenGeek.

June 18, 2005 7:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Looks like the e-mail bounced....

I would give your state rep a call to see what they can do. If you have the money, Sylvan is a good deal too. My older kids needed this. Best done early, but might be enough to get your kid on track enough to continue...

Best of luck, sounds tough.

June 18, 2005 9:28 PM  

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