Rigid school standards ignore reality of inner-city atmosphere
By Anthony Cody
Imagine the following:
The mayor gives everyone in a town an identical apple seed to plant. We are given guidelines on how to water the seed, fertilize and prune. Ten years later, the first harvest is due, and we all receive our standards for what a good apple is. A good apple must be at least four inches in diameter, it must be sweet and free of blemishes.
But some of us have had trouble. Our yard had rocky soil. The building next door cast a shadow so our tree only got an hour of sun each day. Our trees grow fruit, and it is sweet, but it is not as robust as that grown on the sunny, fertile plot by our neighbor down the street.
We are told, "Each and every apple on your tree must meet the standards! You must be a poor farmer. You must not have given your tree the encouragement it needed!" And then the consequence: "If 100 percent of your apples do not meet the standards within four years, you will lose your share of fertilizer for your tree. No excuses."
Teachers, like these apple farmers, are told not to make excuses for the performance of our students. All of our students, like the apples on these trees, are supposed to reach proficiency in the next six years, according to the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Every year of the next six, more schools will be added to the list of failures, and find their funding cut.
As a teacher, I want to share with you some of the conditions that make our soil rocky.
ΓΆ€ΒΆ Forty percent of the students in our state are English language learners. But No Child Left Behind mandates they be given the same tests, even if they have only been in this country for a year.
ΓΆ€ΒΆ In Oakland, children require hospitalization for severe asthma attacks at a rate four times higher than the state average, and rates for African-Americans are especially high. At some schools, as many one in four children are afflicted. Asthma causes, on average, an additional three days' absence, as well as disrupting sleep and damaging learning in school.
ΓΆ€ΒΆ A recent investigation into the effect of violence on children found that as many as 30 percent in urban areas such as Oakland are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, which causes students to be on edge, and have trouble focusing on schoolwork.
ΓΆ€ΒΆ Our schools have become even more segregated over the past few decades, and many urban schools are close to 100 percent poor and minority.
ΓΆ€ΒΆ Urban families are under intense economic pressure, with rents and health care costs rising and wages stagnant. More than half the students in the state qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, which means family incomes are less than $40,000. This puts more stress on children and causes the breakup of families.
Teachers in urban schools understand that these are our conditions - the rocky soil in which we must work. We often tell our students, "You can do hard things," and we are able to do hard things as well. We are nurturing our apples as well as we can, with knowledge, innovative instructional strategies, effective assessment practices, love and care. In spite of our efforts, however, not all of our students will meet the rigid standards set by the state.
We want it to be known that most teachers are doing their best, and our students usually are as well. We want to be recognized for choosing to farm in the rocky soil, and be supported in our task, not blamed when some of our fruit fails inspection.
ANTHONY CODY is a National Board-certified science teacher coach who has worked in the Oakland schools for 20 years. He wrote this article for the Mercury News.
San Jose Mercury News
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