Part of what draws me so keenly to the classroom, what continues to fire my admiration and respect for teenagers, is their utter lack of ingrained cynicism.
Teens do, however, make for harsh skeptics. Try to buffalo young adults and their internal truth filters quickly kick in: Is the speaker voicing the truth, or is something else buried in heaps of euphemism and jargon, the "double-speak" that George Orwell warned against?
Conversely, many of the seasoned teachers I work with wear cynicism like soft, invisible shoes--shoes that cozen us, protect us without any overt effort. Some of us pull our cynicism on every day, for without this protective skin, the harsh realities that litter our paths at school would leave us trailing optimism in dribbling rivulets.
Those of us who fervently believe that schools have the capacity to educate far beyond content and standards worry that education doled out in measurable bits overlooks a singular possibility for teaching humanity and compassion.
For us, the following two stories enrage our sensibilities. And perhaps more importantly, in an age where teacher "accountability" and student "performance" litter our dialogue, these examples illustrate the hypocritical nature of an educational system that treats both teachers and students with so little respect.
A little over four years ago, a young man from Korea enrolled at my school. From the other side of the Earth, his family sent him to California for the opportunity to learn and grow in a foreign land. He did not speak English then, but this did not prevent him from learning the language of this country, compiling a 3.32 grade-point average, placing in the top third of his class of 550, and passing every one of his classes. His faithful attendance, although not perfect, contributed to his good grades.
Another student from this community, one who spoke English as her native language and who had every advantage that nearby family and cultural familiarity could provide, managed a grade-point average of 2.06, placed in the bottom 10th of this same class, and did not pass all of her classes on first try. In two classes during her senior year, she logged nearly a 25% absence rate.
Together, these two students show disparate degrees of performance in school and commitment to learning. Only one graduated with the class of 2000; both of these students had their lives irrevocably altered through educational hypocrisy.
The student who attended spottily and barely managed passing grades failed math during her final semester. With less than five days to graduation, our school provided her with the PASS (Portable Assisted Student Study) program. In two days, she made up one and a half semesters of work and marched up to collect her diploma.
For all his diligence, the Korean student was not so fortunate. He remained unable to pass a writing test designed to measure a person's ability to formulate an explanatory paragraph. During his four years, he repeatedly failed to pass this test, and he had failed again during the last week of the school year. Members of our faculty attempted to give and score additional attempts at this exam; when their efforts were prevented, this young man saw his four years of hard work go for naught.
In both cases, the school's efforts followed district policies. And herein lie the issues at hand: Some of the ways in which we assess students, and the ways in which our communities wish to have us held accountable, make no sense in the context of these two lives and perhaps many others.
The PASS program was devised for migrant students in the ninth and 10th grades who did not attend school on a regular basis, and could use "packets of work" under the supervision of teachers to help them attain a passing grade. Our district purchased these materials and applied them as designed and otherwise--using them as a safety net for children of any background and age who had failed their semester courses.
A single writing sample as a method of assessment asks us to believe that real world writing exists in just one form: Answer a specific question in a very specific way, without research, reference books or any other kind of assistance.
As a society, do we want our understanding of a student's abilities and worthiness to graduate linked to this kind of artificial writing, or will we find ways to encourage and examine success growing from hard work and intellectual engagement?
At our school, as in many others, we post our Expected Schoolwide Learning Results in every classroom. These act as educational mission statements. At present, our staff is laboring to align our instruction to the ESLRs and the state curriculum guidelines--a worthy and useful task. Unfortunately, this work has brought us face to face with the hypocrisy that threatens to infect our students: ESLR No. 3 admonishes one and all to "think critically, question intelligently, solve problems and set realistic goals."