Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Education Reform - Reaching the Most Troubled Students

MeanMesa watched as the News Hour broadcast an education article from New Orleans.  Now, New Orleans already had a terribly ineffective public school system even before Katrina hit.  However, during the hurricane and the flooding, a number of New Orleans schools were utterly destroyed, casting the entire city's public school system into a pit.  The situation had suddenly plunged from "bad to worse."

With the final withdrawal of the autocracy and its cronies from the Capitol and the end of the looting frenzy where not a single dime could get through the Republican Congress, Federal aid money finally began to reach the New Orleans public system.  A fire brand of a school administrator was hired, bad teachers were fired, the communities began to get involved and the system caught a glimpse of the "light of a new day."

Still, the depressing results of the previous years of "good ol'e boy Southern neglect" remain at full throttle.  A short quote from the News Hour presentation:

JOHN MERROW: When school superintendent Paul Vallas arrived in New Orleans three years ago, he faced a tough challenge: how to educate students who are way behind academically or who have gotten in trouble with the law.
This school, Booker T. Washington, was designed for teenagers who are performing at an elementary school level. Although three-fourths of students in Vallas' district are at least one grade level behind, here, the problem is extreme.

PAUL VALLAS, superintendent, Louisiana Recovery School District: I have got 16-year-old seventh-graders and 17-year-old eighth-graders and 18-year-old ninth-graders who are reading at the third- or fourth-grade reading level. Those are -- those are tremendous challenges.

JOHN MERROW: Students who have been expelled or run into trouble with the law attend Success at Schwarz Academy, with the goal of improving their behavior and returning to regular high school.

PAUL VALLAS: We have students who have violated the zero-tolerance policy, who -- who pose a physical danger to other students, kids who are too violent and too disruptive to be kept in the traditional school environment.

JOHN MERROW: From day one, discipline at both schools became the main concern.

Mera Bercy, who is assistant principal at Booker T. Washington:
MERA BERCY, Assistant Principal, Booker T. Washington: Our students, they are frustrated. They are emotionally frustrated. They are academically frustrated. They're not aware of how they're creating a domino effect or how it may affect the entire classroom.

You can watch the entire video and read a transcript of the interview here.

Now, MeanMesa could post an entire book here and still not cover all the efforts the "experts" have been implementing to improve this situation.  Even with some new, rather dynamic thinkers, a plan which implements some of  the latest theories and, finally, enough money resources, the ship seems to keep sinking.  Perhaps the descent is a little slower, but, frankly, most of the players who have committed to move the thing this far are surprised with how stubborn the problems seem to be.

All sorts of sophisticated programs have begun in the school system, but this particular "elephant in the living room" has -- at least so far -- not moved much.

MeanMesa would like to offer a suggestion which might help a little.  It also enjoys the additional advantages of not costing very much and not requiring a lot of time to get started.

Such a suggestion should have a catchy title, so let's call it "Videos From the Common Lives."  Here's how it would work.

It seems pretty clear that a central issue with the students discussed in that quoted interview circles around the state of their dreams and their expectations for their future lives.  When everything happening around you in High School seems to have almost nothing to do with deciding whether you will prosper or suffer after graduation, the whole affair seems to be equivalent to an artificially imposed "tooth ache."  There is little evidence in the lives of these students that a good education will have a measurable effect of their lives after high school.

Instead of dreaming about having a nice place to live, a good job and a family, these young people have been fed an almost overwhelming river of rich drug dealers, professional athlete millionaires and hip hop musicians with giant pinkie rings.  Many of them don't even know anyone with a steady job who lives on a pay check wage.

Most of them also realize that, even though they dream of these examples of prosperity, their odds aren't good.  Having or not having an education isn't even on the table.

To break this suffocating cycle, "Videos From the Common Lives" would work to exhibit some very real possibilities for them.  Videos would be a series of interviews with real people who answer the questions about themselves and their lives which might interest these students the most.  The Videos could also contain some questions about the precise future possibilities which might represent the most frightening aspects of life after high school for these students.

What sort of questions?

"Hi.  My name is Jimmy Lewis.  I am 28 years old.  I live in Duluth, Minnesota with my wife and my daughter.  I work in a small plant which electroplates car parts for Ford Motor Company.  We live in this apartment that you see behind me.  I usually make around $2100 a month and the rent here is $720.  Most of the rest we spend on food and bills."

"I went to high school here, but I didn't quite make it to graduation.  I roamed around town for a couple of years and managed to pick up a possession conviction.  I spent two months in county.  I also figured out that wasn't a good place for me and that I didn't want to go back."

"My probation officer set me up to get a GED and helped me get this job.  That was three years ago, and things have been getting a lot better since then.  I've picked up a few classes at the Junior College which help with work."

"Before I got into trouble, I didn't know that people like me could actually live like this.  I mean, the whole idea of living like this was pretty far away from what was going on all around me while I was growing up."

Okay, maybe this is enough from a sample video to get the message across.  The whole project would encompass perhaps hundreds of such video interviews.  As many representative outcomes as possible would be represented in the whole collection.  They could be shot at all sorts of locations all across the country.

There would be no scripts.  The interviews might generally follow a few questions to guide the conversation, but authenticity and indentification would be the key elements of each one.  The students in New Orleans -- and probably other places, too -- need to see some positive examples of good outcomes for themselves.

There would be no actors.  The "stars" of these videos would be volunteers who were open to the idea of sharing their lives with these students in New Orleans.  MeanMesa supposes that the videos might be subject to a little content editing if the interviews got too far out of hand, but there would be no preaching, no scolding and no condescension.

The volunteers who were being interviewed would not be spectacular successes or failures.  They will  represent the "Common Life."  Each "star" might make a few comments about the reason why he  or she has volunteered to make the film.

The average length of the videos should be around ten minutes, and there should be enough different videos to choose from that a teacher will not have to show the same one more than once.

Give it some thought.  Even if you are not directly involved in the educational process, we -- as a nation -- have to solve this one before it get's even worse.

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