A quick note: The other day I saw a Facebook post that linked to a letter from a school board president. It annoyed me. So I wrote this speaking to the notes app on my phone. It holds a slightly different voice and style. I hope you can get over it. If not, you should definitely feel free to hit the back button.
In a perfect world, schools would see all children as a source of potential. They would encourage, nourish, and feed them to grow. But, as many of you know, it is not a perfect world. In this world, we see kids much differently. They are seen the way the system has asked us to see them. It's the system that many of us voted for, the system that many of us encourage, and the system that exists in almost every city in America. If you replace our students' heads with dollar signs, you get a much more accurate representation of how we built this system. And though most every educator, and administrator, that I know fights against this, this is how the current system is asking us to view them. It's designed that way. And we all let it happen because, "we want what's best for our kids."
My first job in education was in a seventh grade classroom in a small urban middle school. It wasn't just a small school in a big city, but a small school, in a small city, that just happened to be beside a really big city. I spent my first six years there, eventually shifting from that middle school to a high school classroom, watching the decline in enrollment continue as students chose charter schools or used fake addresses to go to another district.
I learned how to teach there. So of course, I made a ton of mistakes. But I also did enough good to build some meaningful relationships with a bunch of cool people. I met some of the greatest kids anyone could ever hope to meet, and some pretty amazing colleagues that have stayed friends over the years. Eventually, that school lost enough enrollment and blew enough standardized tests that the school board decided to close the building. They made an agreement with a neighboring district, and sent the kids to a school that, ironically, was performing worse than the school they were leaving. They packaged up their plan in a bunch of fancy speech, but then delivered the kids from a failing school to an even more failing school. That decision confirmed in my mind something that I had probably known for a long time: that powerful people don't make decisions about education so that kids can learn. That is secondary, at best. They make decisions about education because of money.
Thus, If we want to reform our system, as terrible as this sounds, we either need a new brand of people in power or we need to make reform efforts financially beneficial to old white guys. I'm not sure which one of those two things is easier.
Anyway, I did enough well in my few years at that school that the final graduating class of 35 students asked me to be their commencement speaker. A school that had existed for over 100 years was having their final graduation, and some great kids somehow convinced the school board to let some blowhard white guy give a speech.
It was the greatest honor of my life. It made me sick thinking about what I was going to say. I stayed up for nights, and couldn't eat, trying to figure out ways to honor those 35 young people that changed my life, while calling out the stupidity of the adults who had let all this happen.
I was sure that we don't close century old high schools because of kids. And I certainly didn't want the graduates to think that they were the reason that this high school was going to fade into nothing. They had already caught the brunt of some ridiculous news reporters with racist opinions. But I also didn't want to make their graduation speech something less than they deserved. I didn’t want it to be about some liberal do-gooder with a bad haircut ranting about some inadequate adults.
I ended up starting with a string of apologies. I apologized for bad legislation, for bad decisions that were made across the street at central office. And then I got a little bit closer to home. I apologized for bad principals and all of the terrible decisions we made when we were trying to put Band-Aids on everything. I apologized for crappy teachers who handed out worksheets and didn't want to help at all. Then, I apologized for myself. And all the mistakes I made. I apologized because those young people deserved the absolute best, and they didn't always get the best. They knew that, but I thought it needed to be said. I turned my back on the entire audience. I turned my back on the school board, the politicians, and even turned my back on all the parents and families. I tried to speak only to the graduates. I said that there were plenty of people here who didn't do enough; who didn't do the right things. There were plenty of people behind me, who made bad decisions. Then, I tried to spend the rest of the time talking about those amazing young people. And how stars have a way of shining through the night. And how they were stars.
I'm sure it was a bad speech. The president of the school board wrote me an email the next day saying how amazing it was. Saying that the class could've had professional football players or celebrities, but they chose me. And he realized why. I took that to mean that my tireless attempt to find the perfect balance between blaming adults and praising kids kids fell on deaf ears. Probably because, I didn't quite scream loud enough.
This week, I wanted to scream louder. That same President of the school board now presides over a K to 6 district. He wrote a letter that they posted on the school's website talking about some renovations that they were doing in one of the buildings. He said that they had always been committed to being an excellent K to 6 school system. Immediately, I started to get red in the face and neck and breathe heavily.
I remembered how the high school had started to show improvement a few years before they closed it. In my last year there, test scores were higher than they had been in years. Every 11th grader had outperformed their projections on the state test. Proficiency numbers were rising quickly. The school board said nothing. It was almost as if they hated this little piece of data, because it flew in the face of what they wanted or needed to do.
So they started to praise the elementary schools and manufacture positive stories. They started to talk about all of the reasons why one should send their children there. They talked about how the classes were full. And they conveniently ignored that test scores in those K to six buildings were actually staying the same or falling.
It's not learning that makes a school great in the minds of many. Instead, it is how many people go there. No state, or district, will ever close a building that is full and making money. With this in mind, learning actually becomes secondary to other things. It's quite possible that having a school where students learn will eventually bring kids into the building. But, we often try to switch those two things. We expect students to return, fill buildings, and wait on wait lists first, and then the school will improve.
And this is the fundamental truth that all parents should know about education and our current system of choice and free-market learning. They don't see faces. legislators and policymakers don't care about learning and test scores as much as people like to pretend. Instead, they care about the dollar sign on your child's head. They care about the money that follows your decision to send your child to any school that you choose. And so we fight over that money. And we try to talk about test scores when people are listening to that, and we try to talk about safe schools when people are listening to that, and we try to talk about new buildings when people are listening to that. And the list goes on and on. We’ve so often made this about things other than learning
And that is something we should all apologize for.