After a brief getting-my-life-together hiatus, I have returned to the blog. Nothing serious, really, just getting into the swing of things with a new part-time job and getting some effective work done on my graduate applications. I don’t meant to brag, but I’ve been reviewing a lot of high school math for the GRE, which I am taking on Tuesday. I think I’m ready, but I’ve still yet to review computation and permutation problems (out of a perfectly reasonable fear of equations that include !s) and I just know one is going to show up. I think I’ll bite the bullet and get into those tonight.
Speaking of testing, many of you reading this have probably seen Buffalo Business First’s 2013 rankings of Upstate New York school districts. You haven’t? Here it is. Now, from what I can tell, Buffalo Business First is a small-time business journal, and this is a ranking they have pulled together from state testing data (if anyone knows more about this ranking, please let me know), which is just to say that we don’t know precisely how they settled on this ranking. However, its results are fairly consistent with what you might expect.
I’m very proud to say that my dad and stepmother work for the highest-performing district in Upstate New York, and that my sisters are getting a first-rate education. I’m sad to say that Rochester is the lowest-performing district, out of four hundred and twenty-nine schools. To put it differently, I drive twenty minutes every day from the jurisdiction of the best school in the state to that of the worst school in the state. It is not a coincidence that the list ends with Albany, Buffalo, Syracuse, and Rochester, although it does feel uncanny. What do we make of this gross disparity? What does this tell us about our cities? The issue becomes (if possible) even more bleak when you consider that the most populous cities in Upstate New York are, in order, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and Albany. Most of UNY’s children are in the districts that are performing the worst on state tests.
I would like to conjecture that state testing is choking our inner-city schools. Allow me to make an imperfect analogy: imagine that two kids are asked to build a lego tower. One kid, we’ll call her A, has twice as many blocks as the other kid, B. (The manner of acquiring legos is complicated, you can’t just buy more. Did I already mention how imperfect this is?) The challenge is to build a tower that is one foot tall. A easily builds the tower, with a bunch of legos left over. B, having half the number of legos, is a few blocks shy of the goal. The logic of state testing dictates that when schools fall short of the goal, the goal needs to be made more difficult in order expose and solve the problem — as if educational attainment comes about by sheer force of will. When the goal is made more difficult, our struggling schools will continue to fall behind (and they will lose hours upon hours of curriculum and enrichment time trying to teach their students how to take a test that neither party is equipped to take). Is it reasonable to raise the bar on testing, across the board, when half of our state is not playing with a full deck? Resources matter. Without them, school districts fail, which is exactly what we’re seeing in our biggest cities. The state is asking Rochester to build a tower of educational success, but we’ve already used up so much of our legos on things like free hot lunches for 100% of our students. The logic of state testing frustrates me, and I get annoyed when people suggest that somehow individual teachers should be able to make up the difference. Again, as if they just aren’t trying hard enough. Expect guest posts by my AmeriCorps peers in the schools in the near future, to give a first-hand account of the rewards and challenges of working at RCSD schools.
At the REF partnership dinner last week, a wonderful and celebratory event, East High teacher Laura Delehanty gave an incredibly inspiring speech. She and her husband send their children to RCSD. She said, “If the Rochester city schools aren’t good enough for my children, they aren’t good enough for anyone’s children.” I admire her strength of character and her many accomplishments at East, but I imagine it’s not easy to be both so close and so far from educational excellence like that maintained by the Pittsford community. It is my opinion that New York State testing is ultimately prohibitive to all school districts (perhaps I’ll get my family members in education to comment on this), but our city school districts are clearly hit the hardest, making lists like these even more frustrating. Quite literally, the system is keeping our kids down.
Last night, I saw a wonderful documentary at the Little Theatre with some AmeriCorps members. It was personally inspiring, and even made me tear up a bit, and at the end I thought, “Wow, there’s so much in here worth talking about. I wish there was a way for me to share this with other people!” Then I realized, oh yeah, that’s exactly why I started a blog. Anyway.
The Graduates/Los Graduados is a two-part, bilingual documentary that tells the story of six Latino and Latina students in America. The film zeroes in on some of the hardships particular to Latino students, and on other issues that any student could relate to. Ultimately, the film is a testament to the proven, therapeutic power of one individual reaching out to another, and a poignant reminder that access to public education does not put everyone on an equal footing to join the workforce or seek higher education. Check out the trailer, and grab a sweater, because you’re about to have goosebumps.
The first part airs on PBS on October 28, and the second airs on November 4, at 10 PM. I would highly recommend watching it any way you can. Even if you aren’t involved with education, it’s something everyone in the voting populace should be aware of, now that the American Latino population is a growing constituency of our nation and our schools.
I’ll leave you with a little sociological problem. There was a discussion among members of the community last night after the showing, and a Latina professor from University of Rochester’s Warner School was there sharing insights from a recent study on the school experiences of Latina/o students in Rochester. She brought up structural factors that block Latina/o success in schools, referring to programs and processes built into our public school system that, for the most part, enable it it to function smoothly (but in this case are problematic). One structure that she viewed as troubling was the language requirement. She pointed out that Latina/o students often enter American schools unable to speak English, while native students are required take at least four years of a language. For her, this is an issue of making English language programs more available so Latina/o students aren’t struggling to understand. While I think this is an admirable goal, I’d also go so far as to say that this is not merely a structural issue but a cultural one, too. I was sitting in the theater, feeling baffled by the idea that native students are urged to take Spanish as a marketable skill, while Latina/o students who already possess this skill are implicitly told that they must fall in line with the white students. Our American students are being asked to approximate an element of Latina/o culture while our Latina/o students are being asked to assimilate, to downplay their identity. Speaking Spanish is only an asset if you speak English first; otherwise, it’s a liability. Our schools are necessarily predicated on American culture, and while that doesn’t need to be a bad thing, it seems to punish students from other ethnic groups and send conflicting messages about what it means to have language skills. Your thoughts?