I'm baaaaaaack.

Hoarding All the Glitter Since 2001.

29 January 2012

Bad school, bad school

So what exactly is a bad school?  Does it beat you up and steal your lunch money?  Exchange emails about the stupid investors buying their designed-to-fail securities with Fabrice Tourre?

It can't just be low funding.  Some schools that get labeled bad have big cash right now, more than twice as much as some of the "good" schools.

Nor can it be simply low test scores.  Again, some schools that people agree are good have middling test scores, and others have test scores way below what they "should" be (compared to schools with similar size and demographics).

Teacher quality can't be the metric, either.  We don't have any real metric for deciding what a good teacher would look like as compared to a mediocre one, really.  And there are an awful lot of teachers at "bad" schools who have won teaching awards, gotten competitive grants, or are teaching pedagogy to new teachers to great acclaim.

Bad schools tend to hang out in bad neighborhoods, but a closer look at the demographics and crime statistics around these "bad" schools might find the label misapplied, or bring to mind Vic Warshawski schooling the Northsiders on the South Side: "You make Hyde Park sound like the the site of the Tong Wars, Mr. Devereux."

I bring this up because I'm pretty sure that bad school - especially as applied by parents in SFUSD during the Kindergarten enrollment process - is some kind of proxy statement for a lot of ugly, scabby issues in American culture.  A bad school is very likely to have few white students.  It's likely that more than 75% of the students qualify for free lunch.  And so on.  These issues have nothing to do with the school per se.  Nothing in such a student population makes it inherently bad.  In fact, it's offensive to think so.  Yet the bad school label gives convenient cover for the race and class issues we are not very good at discussing.  Moreover, it exonerates us from the responsibility of making things better - if it is the school that is bad, then the school may need to be fixed (by others), but nothing about the wider society is broken.

Certainly a high-needs student population brings up issues and needs that other schools may not share.  I once read on an online forum that schools like some of the West side elementaries in San Francisco aren't really the place for children from bad neighborhoods.  After all, those kids might need services - a counselor, a social worker, a therapist - that good schools don't have on offer.  Which is offensive on a lot of levels - children and families at all income levels sometimes need help, and if those schools are unwelcoming to high-needs students then they are self-segregating.

It gets depressing being a bad school teacher, too.  Hearing about your rottenness is unpleasant.  It also can boggle the mind.  For various reasons I've recently had the opportunity to visit a number of SFUSD schools, many of which are good.  My overwhelming takeaway was that school funding is really lousy.  Kindergarten students at these good schools were stuck to dried-out markers, crayons and old watercolors.  The Legos had bite marks.  Many of the play people had been beheaded by classes past.  Whereas in the Kindergartens at my bad school, we've collaborated on well over one hundred grants - in terms of materials, there are things we don't have that other schools do (computers, etc.), but there are other areas in which we put the good schools to shame.  Beyond providing more stuff, we're doing it on our time (and dime) - all those grants didn't write themselves, after all.  We have to do more to break even, and when we put in Herculean effort and go beyond, it makes no difference.  We're still bad teachers working with bad children at bad schools.

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