Monday November 20, 1995
Francisco called me today and told me that the school administration is having another review of the grades. What this means is that the vice-principals call in those teachers to the principal's office who supposedly gave too many "F's" and warn them that "it does not reflect well on the school." They are warned in so many words that their contracts may not be reviewed if things do not change. Francisco told me that they called him in and lectured him to this effect and that it appeared a third of the teachers in the school had their names of the list. I have heard of this purging process happening in the past, but this is the first time I have actually seen it. I wonder if I will be called in.
I do not give as many "F's" as my friend and my bosses seem to like me. I am in charge of the student council for my track and am an "Impact" counselor, among other things - all opportunities afforded me in a short period of time. However, I am NOT going to give higher grades if they pressure me. This goes to the very heart of what I think is wrong with the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). I honestly feel thta those students to whom I gave "F's" deserved them. I also think that it is a shame how many teachers give students a "C" with minimal effort and a "D" if they just occasionally turn in an assignment. You do not need to be an outstanding student to pass my class. However, you do need to exert yourself.
I remember watching a TV show some while before I started to work for the LAUSD where a distinguished teacher who was leaving the school district was commenting on how much he doubted the system could be changed. I remember hearing the tone of extreme pessimism in his tone and thinking naively, "Could it really be that bad?" Now I share his opinion. I remember my first education class (before I started to work for the LAUSD) the professor asked us what images came to mind when we thought of public education. Mostly they were the usual negative stereotypes: chaos, decay and violence. More than two years later my personal observation is somewhat different, but I feel the reality is worse than I previously imagined it (coming in with almost no opinion either way of the LAUSD).
It is not that everything is so hyper-violent - although there is considerable violence, and this in of as itself might be reason enough for me personally to never send my own children to the school where I work. Students do not routinely walk the halls in fear at Berendo Middle School. If anything, my school is a relative oasis (with two full-time LAUSD Police Officers on-site) of peace and security in a desert of violent Los Angeles city streets. More insidious and less visible is the concept of scholastic failure. This is now the primary image which comes to my mind when I think of this school district: FAILURE! The LAUSD is the biggest enable of failure that I have ever seen.
Those students who miss class frequently and never do their schoolwork or homework often smirk at their exasperated teachers, as if to say, What can you do to me? What can we teachers do besides the same tired tactics of calling parents, etc. that has never worked in the past? We can do nothing. What tools do we have at our disposal? Damn few.
What happens if a student fails a class - fails all of his/her classes? He/she is passed onto the next level. What happens if a student gets suspended multiple times and/or brings a weapon to school? He/she is sent to another school where the cycle most likely will only repeat itself, time after time, etc. What does this teach a young person? The school district spends so much more money on these students than they do on the good ones; it is the average to good students who are really shortchanged in the process. And many of those troubled students have so many problems that the chances of significant change are slim. FAILURE! At least we could teach those students who want to learn?
If a student cannot read, he/she will never like school. If a student never learns how to read, his/her chances of success as an adult are not good. The more I think about it the more I conclude that education is most important at the elementary level. K-3 is ultra-important since a bad start can doom a child in later grades. How is that students arrive at the 6th grade and cannot read or write? How is it that students actually graduate from high school and cannot read their diplomas? From experience, I know it is very possible - although most such students will be a past of the more than forty-plus percent drop-out rate.
The LAUSD permits kids to fail and there are almost no repercussions if this happens. Sometimes kids need to fail - I have needed to fail - and then be forced to do things again with more success. Merely passing bodies along the system should not be the main priority. Americans today will say, "The teacher failed, the school system failed, society failed!" As a guest speaker recently stated in our assembled school cluster meeting last month, "I have lived in some seventeen different countries in my life, and the US is the only one in which if a student fails a test they blame someone other than the student. All the others would say to the child, "You didn't study hard enough!" Are there are a lot of students in my classes who work really hard? There are some very hard workers in my classes whose families put enormous stress on them to success and help their families in the future. However, the quantity of these kind of students, in the end, is not huge. Most of my students do not come to school self-motivated or excited about learning. I have had the best luck in searching out students who habitually fail to do their work and making them do it during breaks or during lunch. These students will do their work perhaps half-heartedly to be able to be with their friends during recesses. Yet I rarely have the energy to do keep this up all throughout the semester - there are many such students and I am only one person. They could care less about their grades or failing a class; they will be going to the next level regardless. What are we teaching these children? Real life is not like this. I remember hearing about a girl who transferred from an inner-city school to a private one and was amazed at how much homework they gave and how much was demanded of her - she had never seen anything like it before! I do not want any ex-student coming back to me in the future and saying, "Mr. Geib, you and the rest of the teachers gave me "B's" and "C's" all throughout my school years and I still only got a 600 combined score on the SAT! I got to Cal State LA and I was in over my head!" The student would be right to be mad at me.
And it is hard to get by the hardcore kids in the classes who are chronic discipline problems. A teacher does not need many of these types to ruin a whole class. These hardcore types have grown up highly immature and care very little about their education. Most kids of this ilk in middle school are just going to give you the finger every day; it is a constant struggle for every teacher I know to not let the bad kids spoil your entire teaching experience. Kids like this see their role as that of of challenging authority and being a tough guy. As an adult you can see that he/she is simply squandering any chance they might have of having any kind of future career or educational options, but as a "wannabe" these kids have something to prove and you are just another authority figure. When I think of the difference between my best kids who comes to school motivated to work hard and learn and the hardcore LA young who have never worked hard at school in their whole lives it boggles the mind. Of course it has a everything to do with their families these different kids come from. Learning is slow and difficult work and parents need to teach their children that patience, dedication and discipline are vital to educational success. However, there are so many kids at my school who have absolutely no idea how much work is required to become an educated person. And of the worst the administration simply shrugs philosophically and says, "Josť is indeed a troubled kid. But we can't kick him out school because then he would be out on the streets robbing and shooting people!" So now the teacher (me) has been relegated to the role of baby-sitter.
Through long experience, some teachers have come to see this situation as normal - just do the best that you can with what you have. I have come to regard the situation with a mixture of horror, sadness, and disgust. I have one semester left with the LAUSD and I do not even want to work that much longer; I feel guilty - or even a fraud - in working for a system in which I do not believe. I know my adult responsibility is to simply find another place to work. This next couple of months I will take my frustration and channel it into finding a job in some other place, leaving the LAUSD to it's uncertain fate. They will probably hire some other poor sap on an emergency credential with no experience to take my place. They say that in places the LEARN reforms are helping, but I have reached the point where I doubt anything widespread and beneficial can emerge from anything done by the LAUSD. Pretty cynical. Hell, if they made me dictator of the LAUSD I don't know anything that could substantially improve the situation. (The average kid is average intellectually anyway. And what does it mean to be average when you know nothing but dire poverty and your parents are from Mexico and only went to school up until the fifth grade and do not involve themselves in your education? It all too often means you get a 298 on the verbal section of the SAT.) So I guess in the end I don't really care whether they call me into the principal's office or not.
Hopefully next week will be more auspicious.