published Friday, November 2nd, 2012

David Cook: Elevate school anger to DefCon 3

I think it's time someone went nuts over this. A little Patch Adams crazy. Someone who is so far off her rocker, she wakes us up from our comfortable slumber.

The 2012 Tennessee Report Card was released yesterday. In most measurements in achievement data, more than half of Hamilton County students are not proficient or advanced in their subject area.

Which means they're basic or below basic in their understanding and knowledge.

And this has become so normal to us, so ho-hum. Were you really surprised at this? Would you have wagered the report card would have contained any other kind of news?

That scares me. Because I'm afraid we've normalized inadequacy.

We've normalized the fact that only 42 percent of our high schoolers were proficient or advanced in algebra. Or that fewer than half of all third- through eighth-graders are proficient or advanced in reading.

Half our little kids can't read.

This should take us to DefCon 3.

"We're pleased with the math scores across the board," school Superintendent Rick Smith said. "We still have work to do in literacy, language arts, science and social studies."

I don't see any way out of this mess without some healthy outrage.

We need to stand with Smith and burn our copies of this report card. We refuse to accept this. Not here.

Shaking-the-foundations ticked off, pitchfork mad, we ought to pledge, promise and vow nothing less than fixing the inequities before us:

• White kids do twice as well as black kids in many subject areas.

• Brainerd High — a school where four out of five kids are poor — graduates 52 percent of its seniors.

• Signal Mountain High — where 16 percent of its students are living in poverty — graduates 98 percent of its seniors.

• The TCAP average score for Woodmore Elementary is an F.

• The TCAP average score for Ooltewah Elementary is an A.

Up and down, down and up go the inequities of this demographic roller coaster. If you're white and able-bodied and not poor, you do a lot better than kids who are black or brown or in a wheelchair or whose parents can't pay the light bill or stock the fridge for more than two days at a time.

"We have work to do with gap closure in Hamilton County schools," said Smith.

(Smith has been criticized in this column for not attending the gang task force steering committee meetings, where education is considered one of the main solutions to gang problems. It needs to be noted that, at the most recent meeting, he was there and contributed as much, if not more, than anyone else in the room).

"Some of our lowest-performing schools have the highest [level] of teacher turnover in the district," he said. "When we do hire, they're usually less-experienced teachers. It's compounded. Students who need additional help ... have the least continuity of experienced faculty."

The Hamilton County school board needs to grow a pair of eyes and see past the operational planning of the schools and into some kind of vision: A long-term strategic plan for this county's educational needs.

Let's argue about year-round school. Single-sex classrooms. How do we retain, train and reward the best and brightest of teachers?

These philosophical and policy-based arguments should dominate school board meetings. Not whether to send kids on senior trips.

We ought to arrest the next person who utters the ignorant line, "Well, I can always just go into teaching," when contemplating a future career change. Always? Just?

When we view teaching as the educational equivalent of laundry — something you have to do, not much fun, anybody can do it — then we steal the future from our kids, dooming them to a just-basic, maybe-proficient education.

"Will the future be any different?" one teacher asked me recently.

She was so upset and angry when she said this.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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AndrewLohr said...

Cars and restaurants keep improving because they compete. But public schools don't because they don't.

We have to pay whether we use them or not. We don't have to pay more if we do use them--we have no personal investment in them. So: if it costs Rick Smith $10,000 per year per student, let him pay students in his system $5,000 per year to go somewhere else: homeschool, private school, GA or AL school, college if they can get in, foreign school...That leaves more money per student for those in the system, more classroom space, more equipment...and those who leave can try things that work better for them, with more parental involvement and investment. Since most students would probably stay in the system, this'd introduce some competition but not too much at once. (Change Tennessee law: we pay legislators to work out the details of "spending-cut scholarships.")

November 2, 2012 at 10:48 p.m.
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