Two teachers, two California school districts and two starkly different sets of challenges.
Foothill High School
Palo Cedro, California
Foothill is a school of about 1,700 students, 89-92% of which are Caucasian. Although we aren't ethnically diverse, our students have a fairly wide range of economic circumstances.
We're well funded, but our district has done a good job of handling its money as well. It has done a good job with its teachers, and I don't think they're afraid to fire teachers who aren't doing a good job—even if they've been around for a while. The facilities are top-of-the line and my classroom is only two-years-old.
In the classroom, I'm facing the basic challenges that teachers face anywhere: parental support and student motivation. But I'm not dealing with huge obstacles like teachers in some districts. Safety isn't an issue at school, and when the kids are out of school you generally feel comfortable with the communities they live in. In a major urban area, what are kids being exposed to when they're not in school?
I think we could revisit the curriculum if we want to make our system better. California is extremely strict on what curriculum we can and can't give. Some of our standards aren't very clear, some are arbitrary and others just don't make sense based on what we're trying to teach.
Here's a good example of our mixed-up standards: We have one of the highest Academic Performance Index scores in Northern California, but only about 20-30% of our students are proficient in math. How does that make sense, and what motivation do these kids have to do well on standardized tests that they aren't graded on? Teachers don't grade the STAR test. We don't see the results until the following year, but that's how our school's performance is determined. What's the incentive for kids to take it seriously? Furthermore, if the lower-scoring kids move up a quartile, your school's scores go up twice as much as if your upper-echelon kids improve by a quartile. But that lower group is generally comprised of kids who, for one reason or another, aren't motivated to begin with. So why would they be motivated to take a test that has no bearing on their grades or anything else?
United for Success Academy
The 200 kids at my school are about 90% free- and reduced-lunch students. The demographics break down to about 68-70% Latino, 15% African American and the rest Asian.
The toughest part of the job is handling the problems the kids bring with them to school every day. Junior high is going to be challenging anywhere—every kid at that age is going to be having his or her own issues—but in Oakland, we're dealing with those issues, plus the fact that the kid hasn't eaten anything in a couple days, or their parents are in jail or something else. You have to be a social worker, a teacher and a role model all at once because so many other issues find their way into the classroom.
Surprisingly, parental involvement at our school is high. The difference is that there's no trust in the system. If you invite the parents, they'll come. But they haven't been invited systemically. It's not that they aren't there for their kids—they are. The problem is that they've gone to these schools, they know what it was like there, they don't feel like people are advocating for their kids. When given the opportunity to come in and see that we're trying to change that institutional culture, people respond.
If we had just sent out a letter that said "It's back to school night," from the old school I worked at, we'd see less than 10% of the parents. Now that we've been actively reaching out to our students' families, we're seeing closer to 85%. If you go out and do some outreach, people are ready to step up to the plate.
Some of our problems are structural, too. The problem with No Child Left Behind is that everything is a band-aid approach. If a kid's needs aren't being met, the way they propose to fix it is by buying this particular book, as if the book is going to fix the problem and not better teachers. It's impossible to be any kind of teacher—especially a new teacher coming in—when you're handed a book and told, "Teach this." You need experience and flexibility to teach it effectively.
At my old school in Oakland, there was a lot of money in the system. The problem is that it gets earmarked for specific things. So, we would have whatever they were focused on that year. If they wanted us to have books, we would get new books, even if we already had books. Meanwhile, our bathrooms would be falling apart and our desks were 20 years old and broken.
If I had a free hand to make some changes to the system, the first things I would address would be systemic. I'd put a lot of money toward getting parents involved in their kids' school district, because when you put resources and effort into the community, the community gives back. I would use it to attract quality teachers as well, instead of buying more curriculum. The best curriculum in the world isn't going to teach itself; you need good teachers to do it.