By the time I got to high school I was pretty disgusted with the quality of education I was receiving–which included five years of Algebra (even though I consistently received “A”s) and a teacher who took roll call with a cheerleader in his lap. By the end of tenth grade I knew I couldn’t face another two years of this ridiculousness. Luckily the state offered a “proficiency exam” which I passed, allowing me to go on to junior college instead of into my junior year of high school. That was in the late 70s to early 80s, I was hoping that in all this time things had improved—sadly, they haven’t.
Today I’d like to introduce you to D.A. Russell, author of Lifting the Curtain: The disgrace we call urban high school education. Kirkus Reviews calls the book, “An impassioned look at the shortcomings of public education, from the perspective of an inner-city high school teacher.” In it, Russell exposes the systemic failures in today’s educational system and offers a solution geared to put the focus back onto the best interests of the children. Anyone who cares about a child should educate themselves about what is really happening in our schools. (You may win your own copy of Lifting the Curtain by entering the giveaway!)
Q. What do you love most about teaching?
Russell: There is nothing more satisfying than seeing a child that has given up on him or herself finally discover that they are smart. We have a system that has absolutely eliminated self-motivation in a large minority of our children. Extreme pressure on schools to pass children has done far worse than just generate unneeded IEPs or result in so many cheating scandals on standardized testing. (The Washington Post confirmed cheating scandals in thirty-seven states, and was convinced that there were far more actual incidents than were ever discovered.) The real failure of the system was dumbed-down teaching to make sure everyone passed.
Yet these children really want to pass and have pride in what they accomplish!
My most treasured note from a student, one of many like it expressing pride in learning, came from a Special Ed student who was convinced she was a loser. “I did good (sic) in math this year because you pushed me and told me I could do it. I went from a 57 to a 96 in a matter of three months. Thank you for everything and showing me I am smart and can do math and do it correctly.”
I still remember the day Kayla got her first A on a test. She started crying right in front of the entire class, and asked me if she could call her mom (cell phones were not permitted to be used in school). I let her call, and watched the joy on her face as she smiled through all the tears to say “…Mom, I just got an ‘A’ in math.” That was a Friday afternoon. I went home and was on cloud nine for the whole weekend. One Kayla in a teacher’s life cancels out a whole lot of tough times. I framed that letter on my wall at home – it encourages me every time I glance at it.
Q: While writing Lifting the Curtain, you surveyed both students and teachers regarding the state of education. What surprised you most about the students’ responses?
Russell: I was really taken aback by how much our children want to have better and more challenging teaching. In the student survey, the most common comment in the “what is best… or what is worst… or what needs change” section of the questionnaire was from students angry about not learning enough! Some of the responses were amazing to hear:
“My teachers think I’m incapable of doing work because I’m in standard. I want a challenge.”
“The work they give us is stupid is (sic) like they don’t want to challenge us to do something bigger.”
“The lack of work that is given. Personally I rather (sic) be challenged than given a free pass.”
When I followed up with students on this issue, I tried to see what made the difference for them. In almost every case it was a teacher who set expectations far above what the child had ever experienced before, and then that teacher was passionate about working to help the child earn good results. One of the most intriguing (and absolutely spot-on) studies of what makes a great teacher found only two common factors — a passion to teach, and a knack for engaging children.
The only dumb ones (children) are the ones we teach to be dumb. A free ride through high school is not an act of love or kindness!
Q: What happened to all the policies that were supposed to improve our educational system like No Child Left Behind?
Russell: I suspect that had I the opportunity to personally know the individuals who authored many of the federal and state education programs of the past 20 years, I would truly admire and respect those who came up with such a wonderful concept as “No Child Left Behind.” That phrase, in four short words, encapsulates everything I believe about teaching. I enthusiastically supported NCLB when it was launched. Even with 20/20 hindsight, based upon what I envisioned then I would still be an enthusiastic supporter of the NCLB concept.
But it turns out that I was wrong. Horribly wrong. The two most destructive unintended consequences were not allowing failure by children, and holding teachers totally accountable for many factors that are totally out of their control.
First of all, we have taken away from children the possibility of failure – mandating their “success” to the point where a rapidly increasing majority of students know they do not have to try in order to graduate from high school. The “system” now forces teachers to find a way to pass them regardless of effort – phony do-overs and extra credit, dumbed-down teaching, “adjusted” grades, and even outright cheating scandals on standardized tests – or the teacher is held accountable for the failure.
Second, the ages-old education partnership of teacher, student, and parents has been eroded to the point where teachers are often held solely responsible for the performance of a student, while the student and a minority of parents often take no co-responsibility. Teachers are expected to motivate and parent today’s children, despite the growing minority of parents who demonstrate no effective interest in their child’s education. Two disturbing results from the student and teacher surveys graphically make this point. First, both students and teachers felt one quarter of all students in urban high schools do not care what grade they get as long as they pass. Second, a third of all parents were seen as not caring how well the child did as long as they passed and graduated.
The unintended results of all these programs are undeniable – a decade of degrading readiness for college: Only 43 percent of test-takers in 2013 met the SAT’s definition of being prepared for college, a statistic that has remained stagnant since 2009.
Policies are only one piece to the puzzle on declining education. To read more about what’s happening in today’s schools please visit the website at http://liftingthecurtain.com/.
Are you ready to see what else is behind the curtain?Enter to win a copy of Lifting the Curtain, The disgrace we call urban high school education. Giveaway is being held on the book’s Facebook page: http://tinyurl.com/owx4mz6
About the Author:
D.A. Russell has spent the last ten years as a math teacher in one of the urban high schools used as an example in Lifting the Curtain. He is an honors graduate of Dartmouth College, and received his master’s degree from Simon School, where he was valedictorian of his class. Russell is a decorated Vietnam veteran. He has two children that he treasures, and four grandchildren. His son is a police officer who served in the US Army in Afghanistan, earning a Bronze Star for valor. His daughter is a lawyer and his most passionate fan and honorary literary agent.
Russell has taught and coached children for decades. Few things are more important in his view than to cherish the children who are our real treasures in this world.
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