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One Size Fits All Schools: Part 1

September 26, 2011

Your school may be mediocre if…

It serves all students in a geographic area. To me, this is a fundamental failing of schools that leads to the founding lie upon which all other lies (and excuses) in the education system evolve. The idea behind putting all kids in the same school (beyond financial efficiency), of course, is the vaunted ideal of “democracy” and equal opportunity. But equality is not equity, and giving all kids the same education will benefit some much more than others (and ample research shows the ones who often have the worst teachers and learning environments are lower track, lower SES, more academically challenged, children of color).

This issue is even more subtle and personal than the gross inequities documented in books such as Goodlad’s Savage Inequalities. Ask any teacher anywhere if they can serve all kids in a classroom equally well and they will surely say no. Every teacher will tell you that there are certain kids (and types of kids) with whom they are really effective and others with whom they are much less effective.

Yet, especially in bucolic looking smaller elementary schools such as the one my kids attended and where I am a school board member, there may be only one class per grade with one teacher. Invariably, some kids will get a better education in this classroom than others, yet all are forced by our public education governance model to attend this single school with this single teacher. Thus begins the big series of accommodations and expenses and justifications to try to serve each child (as required by law) in a school system organized in way that is designed to not distinguish among individual children. A recipe for mediocrity that hamstrings teachers, principals, parents, and children.

The repercussions of this reality are truly far reaching and debilitating: For example, the school promises to educate all children in the district. Parent A worries about if the school can serve her child well, but has no other option (unless she is wealthy and can pay for a private school). Parent A sends the child to the school, maybe even meeting with educators at the school first to discuss the child’s unique learning needs. The school officials, BY LAW, must assure her they certainly can serve these needs (even if they have no real concrete basis for asserting this, especially given they have never served this particular child). Child A starts school and it isn’t working: Child comes home crying, doesn’t like the teacher, says she hates school. Well, there is no other teacher for this grade, so meetings ensue with parent, child, teacher, counselor, principal….The non negotiable is that this child is going to be in this class. Maybe some accommodations are made, maybe new resources or programs brought in. Maybe it is just that this teacher’s style doesn’t fit for this individual child. Maybe this teacher is burnt out and not really into teaching any of the children. Regardless, there is no way this class of kids will have any other teacher for this year of school. So Parent A (and maybe other parents too) appeal to the Principal, the Superintendent, the School Board. These school officials must spout the party line (even if they know the truth is this teacher is ineffective with lots of kids (or just that this teacher, like all teachers, cannot serve every child equally well)—Your (mandated) school can serve every child because the law says we have to serve every child.

The Principal sees this child come to school more and more dejected daily, but has no ability to alter what is the root of the problem—the relationship of this student and this teacher. So the Principal can throw more accommodations at the situation, provide counseling for the kid, etc. (at ever greater costs of time and energy and money). But let’s say none of this works (because the problem is still the kid and teacher together). The parent complains more—the principal gets defensive. The problem, from the school perspective, becomes the child and family. They never supported the school in the first place, the child has special needs, the family is difficult—it is not “our” fault in the school.

Thus begins the shift of ideals—from heartfelt belief in every child to the recognition that we can’t really serve all children (at least the way the school’s are organized) and that is kind of dispiriting so we set protect our psyche and say we tried every thing we could, there are just some kids and families who don’t value all we are doing, look how well we are doing with most kids. We start citing statistics (only 15% of our state’s kids don’t graduate!, 72% are proficient…) as if we were talking about batting averages or the chance of rain and not REAL INDIVIDUAL CHILDREN!!!

Anyone else ever have this experience in a school? Any time you as a teacher/administrator felt maybe a student might be better served in a different setting (but could do nothing to make this happen)? How much time, energy, and money can we spend to try to make the kid fit the school rather than make the school be a better fit for individual kids?

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