Are we REALLY failing?

When I was in college, I had an assignment in one of my education courses that required me to interview a number of school teachers and school administrators, then write a report on my findings. I interviewed a husband and wife who were, at the time, 27+ year veterans of our public education system. I don’t even remember any of the questions I asked, but I remember this answer:

“The public gets a FANTASTIC return on the relatively small amount of tax dollars each person invests in our vast public education system.”

I believed that then. But once I went to work in our public education system, I now believe it to the soles of my feet and to the center of every cell in my body. No organization is perfect, and no public school I know of would claim to be. But our public schools are FILLED with the absolute hardest working people I’ve ever known. People who do a job that’s hard, underpaid, underappreciated, maligned in the media and by other public officials. And do you know why we do it? Because it’s IMPORTANT. Two of my colleagues and I had this conversation just yesterday. We could all work at jobs that would make us more money. We could work jobs with less stress. But what made us public educators in the first place and what keeps us there despite everything is that we have a job that is IMPORTANT in the grand scheme of things. 

Much has been said in recent days about charter schools. My instinct is to oppose them, but I find myself at least somewhat willing to see how HB520 plays out and if, as our legislators have stated, local school districts have control and public schools, that are already underfunded, won’t find themselves with even more of a shortfall.

But what I cannot abide is the constant degrading of our public school system. Not every Senator and Representative has taken part in this character assassination of our public schools, and our local legislators have actually been quite complimentary of our local school districts. So please know that I am not lumping all of our state politicians together. However, so much of what has been said and/or written as our legislature moved full steam ahead with a charter school agenda refers to public schools as “failing”, “underperforming”, “falling short”, and on and on and on. I’ve seen the following statistics bandied about as “evidence” that our public school system is failing our most vulnerable students:

  • 75% of students in 4th-6th grades that perform in the bottom 1/3 of students on Kentucky state assessment qualify for free/reduced lunch.
  • 56% of students who qualify for free/reduced lunch perform in the bottom 1/3 in reading or math.

What these statistics don’t take into account is the GROWTH that has most likely taken place within that “bottom 1/3”. What this statistic fails to consider is... where did these kids BEGIN? Do we want all kids to reach proficiency? Of course! Is it a quick process for every student? NO! What these statistics fail to address is that a large portion of that 75% probably started in the bottom 1/10 and have since moved up to a higher level, even though they may not have made it out of that “bottom 1/3”. Should that GROWTH not be celebrated and considered a success? Should a child who has progressed not be celebrated simply because he or she hasn’t reached proficient/distinguished level yet? Of course, as educators we don't stop when a child shows growth. We continue to push them forward toward proficiency, but we celebrate all the growth along the way... and consider that growth a success for that child.

At my school we CELEBRATE growth. If a kid moves up 1 reading level during a grading period, they are recognized and celebrated. The student who moves from a 2nd grade reading level to a 3rd grade reading level is celebrated just as much as the kid who moves from a 6th grade reading level to a 7th grade reading level. If a student moves up a level in Math, they are celebrated, no matter what level they started at. There will always be kids who move up the ladder quickly, students for whom success and achievement happen naturally and almost easily. But for kids who come from homes that are in crisis due to poverty, abuse/neglect, or homes where education is just not valued the same way it is in others, achievement isn’t as quick or smooth. But public school teachers don’t give up on those kids. No way! We find those kids. We encourage them, when maybe they’re not getting encouragement anywhere else. Our schools feed those children, many of whom don’t get another square meal once they leave the school building. We TEACH those kids, and we CELEBRATE when those kids GROW. And while, of course, we want those students to reach proficiency, we CELEBRATE when they move from the bottom 1/10 up to the “bottom 1/3”.

A student scoring in the “bottom 1/3” isn’t necessarily a failure. That level may represent a huge success for that student. But in our media and for many of our public officials, that level is evidence that our schools are “failing” those students.

So, as we are apparently moving forward with a charter school agenda in Kentucky, please keep in mind that not all statistics tell the whole story, and what looks like evidence of failure may well represent great success.

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