Smoke and Mirrors

Spread the love

“Nobody can get the truth out of me because even I don’t know what it is. I keep myself in a constant state of utter confusion.” Colonel Flagg

Among the first classes I ever taught were two Spanish I classes at Waukegan High School in Illinois. At one point during a frustrating day, I said to the class, “You want to learn Spanish, don’t you?” One of my best students answered back: “Ms. Turner, they makin’ us take this. If I didn’t need this to graduate, no way I’d be here.” The class chimed in to support her. Yeah. Not my idea. I don’t wanna learn no Spanish. Yeah, they stuck us here, Ms. Turner. I wanted woodshop. The most poignant voice said quietly, “I just want to drop out, but my dad won’t let me yet.”

These high school students had to take two years of a foreign language because under NCLB all children had to be prepared for college – whether they wanted to go to college or not. This sounds reasonable in theory. Parents and educators have always selected the material schools provide, understanding that children and adolescents lack the experience to make some choices. Adults know that college graduates earn more over their lifetimes. They know that Spanish has become generally useful. Nowadays some billboards no longer even bother with an English translation. Employment ads often request or even demand that applicants speak Spanish as a condition of employment.

However, sticking 35 students (40 to start) in a classroom without enough desks, with a first year teacher, a formidable gang presence, and books that predated the internet and looked like it – well, that may not have been terribly useful. The disciplinary issues that arose in that class could have swamped a veteran teacher. Complicating my efforts, many students did not want to be there. They had zero interest in Spanish. Some considered the class unfair; the Hispanic students possessed a natural advantage that angered their white and African-American counterparts.
Other students objected, with justification, that they were sixteen years old and starting Spanish at that point made little sense.

“Mrs. T, I’m not going to learn Spanish,” one said. “Nobody can learn Spanish in two years and I don’t even want to do it.”

I gave that student a pep talk, explaining that learning some basic vocabulary would be useful and pointing out that he might change his mind about Spanish in college. I compassionately explained that he was stuck, unless he was interested in French or German. I might be able to get him into another language, but he had to take a language. He decided to tough out Spanish.

Oddly enough, though, I made it through that first year of teaching and I remember many of those kids with great fondness. I just kept teaching. They sensed the sincerity underlying my white, middle-class suburban momness, and by the end of the year, we had forged a rapport. Gang colors and gang signals swirled around me and mostly right past me, although we took a midyear blow when one of my funniest and most likable students was arrested and charged with manslaughter after a gang disciplinary action that led to the accidental death of one of his friends.

This one student was not going to college anytime soon. (I hope he makes it there someday. K., I still believe in you out here. I always did.) Many of these kids are not going to college. The dirty, not-so-secret fact that we like to ignore is that the U.S. dropout rate may be (or may not be) slowly declining but remains fairly steady. We don’t have an exact number, but the number is high. Many students do not finish high school. Worse, many students graduate lacking basic literacy skills. We have been selling these students college since kindergarten but we have not even managed to sell them high school. We are marketing the most important product that anyone will ever try to sell to these students, an education, and we are doing it so badly that many of them are walking away on the first day that we legally allow them to exit the premises. You can make little children go to school. You can make most adolescents go to school. But you can’t make them like school and if they dislike it fiercely enough, they’ll leave.

Even those kids who stay in school don’t put a lot of effort into material they don’t like. They do what they need to get by, often as little as possible. My daughter used to chuck her laundry and any loose items in her bedroom into the attic when she knew her dad was about to check the room. The floor looked great, the closet wasn’t bad – and the attic was a secret, growing disaster. I found one pair of my glasses in a pile of laundry that had been stuck in that attic for over a year.

We put students in that unwanted language class because we want the best for those students, a clean application to present to a college admissions office. We want to believe they will graduate from a university. Motivated by the best of intentions, politicians and academic administrators tell us the stories we want to hear; in many cases, I believe they are telling us the stories they want to believe. They have goals for America’s children, goals that include college readiness for all America’s children.

The wealth of data available allows them to keep telling stories too. Test scores at Podunk High in northern California may have gone up 21% in the last year. With thousands and thousands of schools across the country, politicians and academic administrators can always find examples to support their contentions, clean bedrooms they can present to America.

Unfortunately, America’s politicians and administrators often end up omitting or sanitizing those educational failures that don’t fit the picture they wish to present. Sorting out the wishful thinking, make believe, and truth in the pile of facts and factoids presented to us is a daunting task. We have too much information and not enough time to evaluate that information. Most of us want to believe that the United States is making progress against illiteracy and innumeracy. We write down the facts that support our belief. We focus on Podunk High, ignoring the high school across the valley where scores fell by 8%, ignoring the many, many schools that have become attics where we cram children who have the misfortune to live in the wrong zip code. We ignore our failures despite that fact that, in a test-based system, those failures glare at us from the pages of mandatory state reports on school performance.