Bloodied Yet Unbowed

This is a guest post by William. William is a psychodynamic psychotherapist currently working in an educational setting in Chicago, and a regular commenter at Feministe. The first post in his guest-posting series on madness is here, and the second is here.

As some of you might know I’ve had the dubious privilege of sitting on a lot of different sides of the educational world. When I was very young I was given a series of trendy diagnoses and pumped full of drugs that made me sick, when they didn’t work I attended was sentenced to survived several behaviorally-based programs for children with severe behavioral, emotional, and learning disabilities. These were the kinds of schools where “reasonable goals” were about as ambitious as eventual independent living and a closely supervised service job.

As time went on I was identified as “gifted,” a term whose barely-veiled-Christian-rooted ressentiment I loathe to this day, and placed in Chicago’s public “gifted program.” It was a good program that not only offered advanced and enriched classes like Latin and Philosophy in junior high, but also encouraged and demanded higher order critical thinking across the board. Unfortunately, I still needed some special education services at that point in my life and that caused a bit of a problem. Lots of people remarked about how they didn’t know what to do because it had never come up before. I even had one teacher ask me who I thought I was fooling because “being a genius means you’re good at learning.” It was frustrating because I had incredible trouble printing (I never did manage cursive) and the spatial abilities of a six year old but could understand Descartes in sixth grade. I always felt like a failure or an imposter and the constantly confused special education teachers did little to help that.

In high school I was identified as a trouble maker because I was the wrong kind of disabled kid: mouthy and independent rather than the (I wish this wasn’t a direct quote from an administrator) “huggy retard who makes people feel better about themselves.” I was never dangerous or violent but I didn’t develop the ability to keep my mouth shut or choose my battles until I was old enough to drink and I was constantly in trouble. By my senior year my special education teacher was trying to teach me basic phonics (because thats what disabled kids need!) and failing me because I was too busy reading Nietzsche. More than a dozen suspensions in four years, a GPA that allowed me to be a ringer for the school’s Scholastic Bowl team, and the sense that school just wasn’t worth it brought me to the edge of expulsion. The school was advised to leave me be and let me graduate after they played their hand a bit too aggressively and a special education lawyer reminded them that they’d be paying for my college education if they didn’t back off.

I escaped to college, went to grad school, and eventually earned a doctorate in clinical psychology. I’ve been a therapist in a “normal” high school, serving an underserved and economically underprivileged population of kids no one expected to amount to much. I now work at a small, relatively affluent, private therapeutic school for children with emotional disorders. Theres a lot I’ve left out there, but I think thats enough for context.

I’ve gotten to experience the world of education for children who are not normal from many angles. In that time I’ve come to have some pretty strong feelings about whats wrong not just with how we education students at the margins but how we educate in general.

If you pay close attention to education in America, or if you’ve read Foucault, you might have noticed that our schools resemble a factory floor. We bring in children, as if they were a blank slate, and fill them with useful knowledge. The focus is on the transmission of information. As a result most of the schools in the United States look more or less similar: a series of desks lined up, cross talk forbidden, faces aimed at a lecturing teacher who periodically assigns work to gauge student’s progress.

Problems begin to arise when you begin to encounter kids who, for whatever reason, aren’t well served by this system. A student with aural processing difficulties isn’t going to be able to listen to a lecture and soak up that information. A student with attention and concentration problems isn’t going to be able to focus on the teacher, ending with the same problem. A student whose previous education had gaps will have trouble keeping up, following along, or completing problems in the way they are expected (lateral thinking is not generally rewarded, especially if someone cannot quite explain how they got to a novel solution). Very bright students might already know the material or learn it more quickly and their boredom often leads to behaviors which are interpreted as disrespectful or oppositional. Kids having trouble at home, kids who are anxious or depressed, kids hearing voices, kids who cannot stop thinking that their shirt makes them look fat, kids terrified that their teacher hates them, all of these students will appear to be “bad students” for one reason or another.

This huge section of students who do poorly then become targets for different kinds of interventions. The problem, of course, comes from the way in which we determine what is wrong. Each of these kids present a different challenge, but when the end goal is the orderly transmission of some discrete set of facts any help is going to necessarily be designed to make the student more like other children, more able to soak up the facts and figures presented to them. Students with emotional difficulties face treatments aimed at reducing their symptoms so they can be normal, though the problems and the suffering still remains. Students with learning disabilities are set between the Scylla and Charybdis of lowered expectations and begrudging accommodations (they seem so much like cheating, after all) geared towards getting them back in class. Very intelligent, bored students are put in accelerated classes if they’re lucky (and if their intelligence happens to be even across subjects) or subjected to discipline designed to make them less disruptive if they aren’t.

The problem of education is similar to the problem of madness because the ways in which we think about education mirror the ways in which we think about madness: we conceptualize these things as deviations from an ideal norm, as something patients or students lack, and we identify these deviations based first on what is uncomfortable for us and then on what we can identify as different. Education today leaves little room for intellectual or neurological diversity. The end result of how we educate children is that kids learn how to conform to the expectations of the educational environment rather than how to think critically or meaningfully engage with data.

Which brings us to the uncomfortable problem: its not just kids who fall so far from the norm that they are labeled disabled or mad or bright or lost who are stuck in a system which disregards their needs and strengths in favor of hammering out perceived weaknesses, its everyone. We’ve all heard that girls are bad at math and we’ve spent a lot of time deconstructing and debunking that meme. Some people have even brushed up against the deeper problem by pointing out that maybe its not so much girls being bad at math as society creating an environment in which they are not allowed to be good at math. Similar observations have been made about the sciences. We lament cutting of arts funding and decreasing emphasis on humanities. We nod our heads and cluck disapprovingly of the school-to-prison pipeline. Yet we do not often ask the difficult question of why we fail to educate so many children or of why we move more and more resources into education but realize fewer and fewer gains. We avoid the question.

Education is a social justice issue. Being able to think and reason and learn and make connections are the roots of advocacy. Our educational system, perhaps not by design but by sloth and neglect, directly undermines those abilities by focusing on easy to measure facts. Grading an essay is hard but a machine can grade a true or false exam. I’ve seen the effects of this system up close, both in my own life and in the lives of my patients. A better system will cost money, it will not be as easily studied by standardized examination, it will require greater respect for students and demand greater flexibility from teachers and administrators. It will not be regimented and well organized. Perhaps most importantly, it will not do a good job of arranging students into hierarchies of usefulness.

A better system will also likely not be standardized. I like the idea of charter schools because I feel more choices mean more places where different students can thrive, but I recognize that this is largely an urban solution. I definitely think that high schools need to incorporate more choice and look more like colleges, allowing students to focus on things they love rather than things someone feels they really ought to know. I believe that the goal of education should be to bring students to a place where they can be functional in the world and follow their own intellectual curiosity; we ought to give students the tools to learn and accept that they might not care much for geometry or dead white novelists paid by the word. I believe that a system designed to support and respect students will lead to a society which is itself less rigid and disrespectful.

Any suggestions?

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84 Responses to Bloodied Yet Unbowed

  1. Politicalguineapig says:

    Very bright students might already know the material or learn it more quickly and their boredom often leads to behaviors which are interpreted as disrespectful or oppositional. Kids having trouble at home, kids who are anxious or depressed, kids hearing voices, kids who cannot stop thinking that their shirt makes them look fat, kids terrified that their teacher hates them, all of these students will appear to be “bad students” for one reason or another.

    Totally recognize this. At one point in elementary school, I begged to be homeschooled. I was bored and frustrated- I hated my fellow students and felt stuck doing busy work rather then learning anything. I was reading several levels ahead of my grade, but I still checked out miniscule chapter books and picture books from the school library so I would look normal.
    I went to a public Montessori school, and then transferred to a private school which took the classic approach but catered to kids with learning disabilities. At the second school, for the first time in my school career I felt as if I were allowed to start learning things in school, rather then being forced to educate myself. I always feel torn when another public school debate comes up; I feel I should support them even though the system let me and most of my friends down.

  2. Hannah says:

    Sad to see a school administrator use the words huggy retard. As the parent of a child with special needs I’m always shocked to read about people who throw the R word around without any consideration of the pain it causes.

  3. jillian says:

    my two boys go to a private christian classical school. It’s small and independent enough to be incredibly flexible with it’s approaches and the subject matter and i couldnt be more pleased with the education they are receiving. (What can i say, my second grader is learning latin and greek, basic multiplication and division and real world history – i didnt learn about mesopotamia until 6th grade. My pre-k-er is already starting to read.)

    i dont think charter schools are necessarily the answer because, IMHO they are too easily riddled with nepotism, bad management and are still often held to the same standards that make public school education so lacking. it doesnt matter how innovative your curriculum is if you still have to spend all spring term teaching for the standardised tests the state requires.

  4. jillian says:

    And for as small as the school is, we have a high population of children who would be considered LD/BD in public school. The former headmaster was dyslexic. But again, we can move things around much easier and change to fit the needs of the particular population from year to year. But we are never, to use the example of the OP, trying to teach phonics to a child that already can handle philosophy.

  5. Cate says:

    I’m with you, that college is a lot better of an education than factory-teaching. I mean, there is just. so. much. out there to learn, kids are only ever going to get some of it, may as well let them pick what.

    But when I try to bring up the topic, the usual response is, “But kids, they don’t have any discipline. They’d just end up taking easy classes like ‘How to draw anime’, or something.”

    I worry they’re right. Do you have anything?

  6. Helen says:

    stuck in a system which disregards their needs and strengths in favor of hammering out perceived weaknesses

    I think this is the key to the problem. Most schools make kids spend a lot of time working on their weak points, to get to an average performance level. But if these kids could use that time to work on their strong points, wouldn’t that get them further? It seems like a better use of time to me.

  7. Esteleth says:

    When I was in school, I was branded “problematic” because I was (1) gifted (2) female and (3) unwilling to help along my classmates.
    Yes, the “solution” the school district came to when confronted with the fact that I was bored in class was to suggest that I become an unpaid tutor to my classmates. As if this was a good idea for me or< for my classmates. But because I protested (and requested more difficult materials to study from) I was rude, disrespectful, and didn’t know my place. So, logically, I had to be punished.
    …and people ask me why I don’t live in that (small, rural) town any more.

  8. Norma says:

    Yes, the “solution” the school district came to when confronted with the fact that I was bored in class was to suggest that I become an unpaid tutor to my classmates.

    I also was directed to teach my classmates for most of fifth grade.

  9. Ptrst says:

    But when I try to bring up the topic, the usual response is, “But kids, they don’t have any discipline. They’d just end up taking easy classes like ‘How to draw anime’, or something.”

    I worry they’re right. Do you have anything?

    Well, for one thing, I don’t think that “How to draw anime” would necessarily be an easy class at all; it’s just not an academic class as we perceive it.

    If high schools operated more like colleges, there would still be some standards in place for required courses. No matter the range of classes available to college students, one typically can’t graduate without taking basic english, math, science, etc. courses; it’s just the focus of their other classes that is really up to the students, as well as how in-depth they choose to go into the ‘basic’ subjects. So they (the hypothetical high school students) wouldn’t be able to graduate if all they had taken were art classes (or whatever other kind of class falls under that category); they would just be deciding that instead of taking two years of physical education and four years of history, they’d rather get a head start on things that interest them.

    In fact, I think that would be a really good idea for a couple of reasons, particularly for college-bound high school students. It would give them an opportunity to explore subjects in school without having to pay for classes, and it would also give them the experience of balancing a wider range of elective courses with the required ones in an environment where there’s an administrator or academic counselor to point out that they need to stay on track to graduate.

  10. EmbraceYourInnerCrone says:

    Its strange how serendipitous the timing of this comment is, my daughters boyfriend is a high school senior who was only , finally diagnosed with ADD in the last few months. He is a bright kid who apparently learned coping covering strategies early and was considered “lazy” “smartmouthed” and a host of other insults. He is great at things when the subject interests him or when he gets a teacher who presents material in a novel way. He is currently taking Chinese and Spanish and getting A’s, but math is torture for him and his grades before senior year were not too good. His SATs were just barely average.

    He got rejected by the colleges he applied to and has fallen into a depression. I know I am not his parent but, they are divorced and were both hoping he got accepted to college so he could live there and not be underfoot anymore(their words).

    My question is what can I do to help him? I was thinking maybe he could talk to the people in the Disability Resource Center at the college he wants to attend and see if he can apply again in 3 months, and perhaps in the meantime take the SATs again. I don’t know if they can assist with any of that though.

    If anyone has any suggestions please let me know, or if you think its none of my business and I am overstepping tell me that. Thanks.

  11. chava says:

    Yeah, I got the “teach your classmates” thing too. Because that’s what bright ladies should do!

    Anyway, I’m not a fan of specializing (to a high degree) at a young age. I think basic literacy in science/math, history, literature serves both the individual and society well, in the long run. Besides, if you go the highly specialized route, you turn into France, where children are routed into tracks based on ability at around 12. Changing career tracks after that becomes increasingly difficult, if not impossible.

  12. EG says:

    But when I try to bring up the topic, the usual response is, “But kids, they don’t have any discipline. They’d just end up taking easy classes like ‘How to draw anime’, or something.”

    See, I strongly disagree with this. In my experience, until our educational system grinds it out of them, children take a great deal of pleasure in learning–they love self-directed learning, and they’re very open to being guided into interesting subjects by teachers who themselves are enthused about what they’re teaching. My first grade teacher had a massive personal interest in Ancient Egypt; my kindergarten had one in architecture; my third grade teacher had one in birds (why birds, I don’t know), they taught us a lot about those subjects–I still remember some of it (I went to a very, very, very good public school). Montessori schools, which tend to be quite successful, are based on the principle that left to their own devices, children are interested in learning, but they’re interested in different things at different times and learn at different rates.

    Besides, easy is in the eye of the beholder. Math for me was dead easy until pre-calc, but I can’t draw jackshit, and never could. We need artists as much as we need mathematicians. What’s wrong with kids learning how to draw anime or anything else?

  13. Amelia ze lurker says:

    Thank you for this. The amount of aggression and almost willful stupidity you experienced is infuriating.

    I had a similar experience, although I was lucky enough to have parents that advocated for me, as well as problems that seemed less threatening to the admins because there wasn’t really a behavioral component. I can be extremely anxious, but while that caused admins to have certain assumptions about me, but they never viewed me as a “troublemaker.” I still remember being given a battery of tests, including the Rorschach, and being told that I had displayed several “red flags” in one of the tests (I was prompted to do a drawing of a person). When I asked what those “red flags” were, they wouldn’t tell me. To this day I wonder what the fuck they were—I actually took drawing seriously, and was mostly focused on producing a technically good drawing (it wasn’t particularly good, though).

    I have an executive functioning deficit, but am verbally gifted, and it was an uphill battle getting the terms of my IEP respected at my high school.

    I will never forget the day that an administrator responded to my complaint that my accommodations for extra time on tests were not being respected in my French class (my best subject), with: “Oh, we don’t honor IEPs in language classes, because we discourage students with special needs from taking languages, so you shouldn’t be in that class.” I was stunned. I was in an AP class with students a year above me, I had won an award for my performance in the national French contest two years before, and I would go on to take courses at the university the next year (subsidized by the school—a scholarship program that only existed thanks to the hard work of one teacher). It still enrages me that my talents were ignored and discouraged because I had “special needs,” which for someone reason meant I was bad at foreign languages, obviously.

  14. Mxe354 says:

    From an anarchist perspective, I think that allowing students to question all authority is crucial to improving the system.
    I’m not saying that kids should stop caring about teachers and disobey everyone; I’m just saying that they should not listen to teachers blindly. And this will work out if teachers themselves aren’t egotistical.

    That’s only one suggestion, though; it doesn’t solve all of the problems with the current system. I’m sure I’m oversimplifying a few things here.

  15. smhlle says:

    I think learning should be individualized as much as possible, but not to the extent that the student is interacting only with a computer. I wish high school could be more like community college. I’ve seen some good results with unschooling, but am doubtful that that would scale up well for large groups.

  16. tannenburg says:

    This strikes home – our daughter was recently diagnosed with Autism spectrum as well as auditory processing disorder. She’s funny, bright, energetic, and loves school, but the system is not designed to allow her to explore her strengths.

    Fortunately – and this is an aspect of privilege – we live in a district which has good services for “special needs” children, and she’s functioning under an IEP which allows her frequent breaks in quiet rooms, chewing gum to still her agitation and anxiety, and the services of a very understanding special ed teacher.

    Still, I worry – because her strengths are in Mathematics and Sciences (she’s in the 3rd Grade) that once she leaves Elementary School she’ll be exposed to a less helpful environment as well as being exposed to the “girls are not supposed to be good at Math/Science but rather the Humanities” crap that is still prevalent in education. For instance, I can see her being accused of cheating in Math because she can “see the answer” in her head without “doing the work” and will therefore become discouraged because the one-size-fits-all system demands SHOWING THE WORK – how do you explain to an eight-year-old that she needs to go through all of these boring steps to a word problem when the answer just pops in her head?

    On top of that, of course, she’s Asian, which brings another bucket of expectations – smart but demure and quiet – which she doesn’t fit, being a boisterous, loud, and cheerful child, which frustrates teachers because she doesn’t “fit the mold” as well as confusing and saddening her, because she is being indirectly taught that society doesn’t like cheerful, loud, and boisterous girls…such behavior, of course, being reserved for the boys in the class.

  17. H says:

    @tannenburg I hope she does end up continuing with Math and Science, the idea that girls will get pushed out of the sciences because they are girls is just infuriating to me.

  18. Alex says:

    Oh my God! The Finnish education system is amazing. William (and fellow readers), you should check out the fantastic documentary “The Finland Phenomenon” for a great exploration of the system. They have one of the best (if not the best) educational systems in the world and they spend less per capita than Americans.

  19. Joe from an alternate universe says:

    Anyway, I’m not a fan of specializing (to a high degree) at a young age. I think basic literacy in science/math, history, literature serves both the individual and society well, in the long run. Besides, if you go the highly specialized route, you turn into France, where children are routed into tracks based on ability at around 12. Changing career tracks after that becomes increasingly difficult, if not impossible.

    chava,

    And by age 12 whether a child is going to university or not has largely been decided.

  20. karak says:

    I was bright, and cross-subject bright, as you put it. Not genius. And I was terribly bullied, constantly anxious and fearful, with a severe case of ADD that had teachers screaming at me for drawing or reading.

    My mom finally told me she was pulling me out and homeschooling me around age 14, and I told her no. She offered to let me get my GED and start community college classes, and I refused. Because normal people went the full 12 years of school, and I knew it was more important to be normal that it was to learn anything. In order to succeed, I had to have this experience of bullying, of sitting in classes, because those were the experiences that contextualized everyone else. If I didn’t have them, I’d be even more abnormal and more screwed in my future.

    School is not meant to teach knowledge. It is meant to teach conformity. And that is why we allowing bullying, why I honestly say being shoved and hit and spit on taught me character—because if the other children had not brutalized me, I wouldn’t have learned how to act like a “normal” person.

    We can teach each kid in the way they learn best, sure. But you just said that school is like a factory. So, what, we send kids to these carefully designed education places, and then to a brutal, uncaring factory? My more unpleasant teachers would often smirk at my desire for specialized education: “Um, the Real World doesn’t care about your needs.” Horrible as it is, they were right (to be fair, the school didn’t fucking care either; that statement is just designed to break people down).

    I’m sorry to be pessimistic, and even cruel. But the world runs on the idea that most people are exactly the same, some are brilliant, and the rest need to be thrown away. Better education won’t change the work structure at McDonalds or Ford.

  21. Joe from an alternate universe says:

    Oh my God! The Finnish education system is amazing. William (and fellow readers), you should check out the fantastic documentary “The Finland Phenomenon” for a great exploration of the system. They have one of the best (if not the best) educational systems in the world and they spend less per capita than Americans.

    Alex,

    The goals in the U.S. are different. To go into Finland’s academic upper school students have to take a test, and only a little over 50% go on, and less to university. The rest go to vocational training. In the U.S. 50% would be considered a failure, and it’s less expensive to educate students when you cull the heard every so often.

  22. Joe from an alternate universe says:

    Alex,

    BTW, we in the U.S. used to have a similar education system. In my home town there were two high schools in the central city. The name of the first ended with Tech. The name of the second ended with Central. The kids from Tech took a totally different curriculum consisting of English, just a little history, and very basic math, and mostly welding or construction courses, no languages. They were not going to college, and, indeed, the curriculum didn’t meet the state college admission requirements. I wasn’t supposed to. We don’t do that anymore.

  23. adhdphd says:

    I have an executive functioning deficit, but am verbally gifted, and it was an uphill battle getting the terms of my IEP respected at my high school.

    This was very similar for me! Except I’m actually really bad at languages, and enjoyed math and science classes. In high school I stopped taking French after 10th grade and not getting anything out of it. In college I had to go back to French 101 for my language requirement, and that time it was actually taught in more of an immersion style, with conversation groups to join after class and lots of online videos to watch. It was still really difficult for me, but I had a much easier time learning and was able to actually appreciate the challenge of learning a language. I still never learned French, but now I do research with using artificial intelligence to learn language, so having that an appreciation of why it’s hard helps bring a different perspective to the work I do.

    Sometimes I talk to people who claim they don’t understand computers or math, but then I can sit down and talk about my work for an hour and they are able to understand what I’m saying and ask some pretty smart questions that I don’t often hear. My eventual goal is to become a Computer Science professor and encourage people with all different learning styles to enter the field, but I worry that too many people get pushed away from STEM fields or from school in general long before college.

    School is not meant to teach knowledge. It is meant to teach conformity. And that is why we allowing bullying, why I honestly say being shoved and hit and spit on taught me character—because if the other children had not brutalized me, I wouldn’t have learned how to act like a “normal” person.

    I have ADHD and based on my experience I would say no, this experience shouldn’t be necessary. I admit the medication did a lot to enable me to build up the social skills to have an easier time getting by in high school. But it was also really stressful and I was seen as “weird” because no matter how hard I tried I still couldn’t pass.

    I decided to just openly talk about my ADHD at work and own up to both the positive and negative aspects. People didn’t think of me as being so weird anymore because they had heard of ADHD, and I had the power to describe my own abilities including my personal strengths. Eventually I found a group of friends who I can be my ADHD self around socially, and that’s helped with my anxiety a lot.

    However, I think a lot of what has helped me get to this point is that I was able to stick it out through school and get an education that provides flexibility to find that type of environment. But I think of that as an argument for better education, not for more bullying.

  24. Marksman2010 says:

    Oh, don’t get me started down this road…

  25. Guest Blogger says:

    Gah! A busy day at work and now a lot to catch up on.

    Hannah:
    I think the intention was for it to be shocking and corrective. All it really succeeded in doing was proving to me that I had the moral high ground.

    Jillian:
    That sounds amazing. Is there a website you could direct me to to learn more about the school? I’m sure if you sent it to the general e-mail adress for feministe Jill would forward it on to me. If you don’t feel comfortable I totally get it and I don’t want you to feel any pressure, but I’m fascinated…

    Cate:

    But when I try to bring up the topic, the usual response is, “But kids, they don’t have any discipline. They’d just end up taking easy classes like ‘How to draw anime’, or something.”

    I worry they’re right. Do you have anything?

    My response would be…so? I don’t really need trig, I learned more about American history researching characters for tabletop RPGs than I ever did in a classroom, one of the classes that kept me from dropping out in high school was Madrigal Choir. I don’t much care about tough classes or rigorous academics so long as a kid is doing something that makes them curious and drives them to learn.

    Esteleth:

    When I was in school, I was branded “problematic” because I was (1) gifted (2) female and (3) unwilling to help along my classmates.

    If I had a dollar for every time I ran into that expectation I would have destroyed my liver before I made it to college.

    But because I protested (and requested more difficult materials to study from) I was rude, disrespectful, and didn’t know my place. So, logically, I had to be punished.

    Let me guess…you resisted the punishment, failed to change, and then were called arrogant and selfish? Maybe “lost cause” or “wasted promise” was thrown around?

    Amelia ze lurker:

    I still remember being given a battery of tests, including the Rorschach, and being told that I had displayed several “red flags” in one of the tests (I was prompted to do a drawing of a person). When I asked what those “red flags” were, they wouldn’t tell me. To this day I wonder what the fuck they were—I actually took drawing seriously, and was mostly focused on producing a technically good drawing (it wasn’t particularly good, though).

    Funny thing, I love the Rorschach. I think, in the right clinical hands, it is the single most useful test we have available. It can give us an understanding of response style, of cognitive ability and rigidity, of emotional state, of trauma and psychosis, its just an incredibly rich measure.

    Its also very difficult to learn, so most people use a program that turns the whole affair into a bad astrology reading.

    Also, for the record, fuck house-tree-person and other projective drawing tests.

    Beyond that, you raise an important point. If anyone has testing done they are entitled to an explanation of the results. I’m not giving up raw data without a court order, but going over test results is a basic ethical obligation.

    It still enrages me that my talents were ignored and discouraged because I had “special needs,” which for someone reason meant I was bad at foreign languages, obviously.

    It doesn’t mean you’re bad at languages, it means that someone decided that kids with special needs were bad with languages and so they weren’t worth the effort. Thats an important difference to remember. Trying it isn’t worth the time and money, so you never get a chance in the first place. If somehow you slip through and excel, well, thats just proof that you don’t need the accommodations.

    Tannenburg:

    Fortunately – and this is an aspect of privilege – we live in a district which has good services for “special needs” children, and she’s functioning under an IEP which allows her frequent breaks in quiet rooms, chewing gum to still her agitation and anxiety, and the services of a very understanding special ed teacher.

    How sad is that? Basic accommodations, ones which require no training or special resources and only small deviations from general rules, being an aspect of privilege?

    Still, I’m glad your daughter has them.

    For instance, I can see her being accused of cheating in Math because she can “see the answer” in her head without “doing the work” and will therefore become discouraged because the one-size-fits-all system demands SHOWING THE WORK – how do you explain to an eight-year-old that she needs to go through all of these boring steps to a word problem when the answer just pops in her head?

    My best advice would be to get comfortable with being an aggressive advocate and give up any hope of school officials not thinking you’re a bitch. I mean it, if you want to overcome this and get your daughter what she needs you’re going to need to be aggressive, proactive, and more trouble to fight than administrators are willing to go through. Its ugly, but unless you are very lucky you’re going to need to approach advocating for your child from the perspective that you’re willing to ask nicely but if things go bad you’re willing to be roughly as gentle as Grant taking the South or Genghis Kahn conquering China. And, just in case that fails, find the number for a good special education lawyer. Finally, with a child like yours, I’d strongly suggest looking into private schools with a reputation for flexibility if you can afford it. You shouldn’t have to fight this hard, but this isn’t easy.

    In the meanwhile, do what you can to undo the damage shes going to soak up every day at school. Teach her that her teachers are wrong about her personality. Praise her for being who she is. Be her safe space. Try to help her become confident and strong enough to survive our educational system.

    Alex:
    I’ll look into it!

    karak:

    School is not meant to teach knowledge. It is meant to teach conformity. And that is why we allowing bullying, why I honestly say being shoved and hit and spit on taught me character—because if the other children had not brutalized me, I wouldn’t have learned how to act like a “normal” person.

    I refuse to accept this. I don’t care if it is how “the real world” is. I don’t care if it taught you character. All it taught me was how to marshall a bunch of hate I’ve had to unlearn and what angle you have to press your thumb to get it behind someone’s eye. We can do better. We should do better. To not do better, to not demand better, is to submit and accept and collaborate.

    I will not be normal, and no amount of blood or tears or broken hopes will manage to beat that out of me. Teach kids that and the bullies lose.

    My more unpleasant teachers would often smirk at my desire for specialized education: “Um, the Real World doesn’t care about your needs.” Horrible as it is, they were right (to be fair, the school didn’t fucking care either; that statement is just designed to break people down).

    Not caring about the needs of the powerless is a mark of privilege. It is a mark of power. It is not the way of thing, but a distortion caused by an incredible imbalance of power. Administrators in my high school might not have wanted to care about my needs, but when I baited them into breaking the law and exposing themselves to a lawsuit they would lose they had to start caring pretty quickly. Or rather, they had to back off and allow me to ignore any rule or regulation that wouldn’t lead to an arrest, which ended up being the same thing.

    We can demand that they care. I know, I’ve seen it happen.

    —————————————–
    For those who are interested, the title of this post is a reference to a song by an Irish band called Primordial. You can hear it here.

  26. ABee says:

    Oh man, I can relate to this in so many ways. I was a very advanced kid in elementary school, and my frustrated parents pulled me out of the public school system to homeschool me for third and fourth grade. During this time, they taught me algebra, had me do book reports on risque French lit and Kafka, all sorts of very far-ahead stuff. They were dedicated.

    When I started at private school in fifth grade, my love of learning was nearly smothered for good. They were trying to teach me things like step-by-step long division, and, for God’s sake, kickball, things I’d never even heard of let alone practiced with my peers. I was lost and outcast, bullied relentlessly, and became suicidal.

    Moving back into public school for the sixth grade didn’t help – relief only came when I got into the gifted classes in high school. So anyway, yeah, I can definitely relate to not fitting in with the system.

  27. j. says:

    William:

    Funny thing, I love the Rorschach. I think, in the right clinical hands, it is the single most useful test we have available. It can give us an understanding of response style, of cognitive ability and rigidity, of emotional state, of trauma and psychosis, its just an incredibly rich measure.

    The word “rigidity” jumped out at me. I was once hospitalized for depression, and during that stay I was given the Rorschach test. I was able to pick out a very detailed scene, but once I saw it, I couldn’t “unsee” it. The psychologist administering it seemed very put out that I couldn’t come up with additional imagery, and I was told later that this was a sign of my being “uncooperative.” WTF?

  28. Amelia ze lurker says:

    Thanks for the feedback, William!

    I like the Rorschach, too. I was really complaining about the projective drawing test. They would not give me even a basic explanation of the results, saying “We can’t explain it, it gives away how the test works.” But I wasn’t asking for a detailed account of how they scored it, just what the hell they meant by red flags.

    “It doesn’t mean you’re bad at languages, it means that someone decided that kids with special needs were bad with languages and so they weren’t worth the effort. ”
    Sorry, I should have been clearer that I was being sarcastic—but yes, that’s what I meant. It’s messed up on so many levels—first that they would think for even a single second that disabled kids were some kind of monolith, and secondly that they would act on those assumptions in a discriminatory fashion. I’m pretty sure it’s illegal to ignore somebody’s IEP.

  29. Guest Blogger says:

    j.:
    Thats not quite what I meant by rigidity. I would hope (even though I really ought to know better) that whoever did the test wouldn’t use one data point to make an observation about cooperation.

    Amelia ze lurker:
    They couldn’t tell you what were red flags, exactly, but they ought to have been able to tell you what was flagging.

    As far as the sarcasm goes, I got it, but I like to be explicit because a lot of people who haven’t run into that kind of thing themselves might not necessarily be able to identify exactly what was at work there.

  30. Politicalguineapig says:

    EG: What Montessori did you go to? Because my experience wasn’t like that at all; mine put kids into a room with vaguely educational objects and hoped they learned. Weirdly enough, I did learn some stuff; to this day I’m astonished at people who can’t identify common backyard birds or identify countries. (The birding wasn’t something I was taught in school, I learned it from my grandparents.)

    Karak: School is not meant to teach knowledge. It is meant to teach conformity.

    My elementary school experience in a nutshell, though my bullies stuck to brutally effective psychological techniques. I gave up on being a girl and relating to other girls. Being friends with boys was out of the question too: I wasn’t running afoul of the girl rules twice.
    I was put into an advanced reading group when I transferred schools. I initially resisted it, but decided that older kids were much better to be around then kids my own age.
    Girls with ADD were relatively rare, so I became sort of a baby sister to the older girls who were eleven or twelve. I tried to avoid girls my age as much as possible until college. Actually, if the older girls hadn’t been both kind and persistent, I’d have avoided them too. I had a younger girl who was a good friend to me until she transferred.
    By high school, I’d morphed into sort of a badass loner, so I avoided the whole clique thing. Though I did have to suffer through a principal who thought it was too ‘upsetting’ for high school students to be discussing 9/11 as it happened, and junior high was marred by a music teacher that thought she was teaching kindergartners (sadly, a common affliction.) Not to mention teachers who thought Lord of the Flies was so important that some students had to read it three times, and totally half-assed health classes.

  31. EG says:

    Better education won’t change the work structure at McDonalds or Ford.

    Better education will give people the tools they need to fight the work structure at McDonald’s or Ford and the government regulations that allow those companies to operate the way they do. That’s why the idea of critical thinking and education scares people in power so much that they have to defund it at the slightest opportunity, all the while making sure their kids go to private school.

    What Montessori did you go to? Because my experience wasn’t like that at all; mine put kids into a room with vaguely educational objects and hoped they learned. Weirdly enough, I did learn some stuff

    Oh, I wasn’t clear enough. I didn’t go to a Montessori school. I was basing my understanding of its methods on what friends have said about it, and some reading I did subsequent to having my interest piqued. My school incorporated some Montessori techniques, but they were not the main focus.

    Was it unusual that you did learn stuff at your Montessori school? I’m just wondering why you said it was weird that you did.

  32. j. says:

    William, I didn’t mean to imply that my anecdote was an example of what you meant/what is ideally meant by “rigidity.” More that your comment triggered that memory, which still irks me years later. I probably should have clarified.

    There were actually some other “data points,” as it were. While this hospital was not a house of horrors, it wasn’t precisely a good place for me, either.

  33. medicalcrab says:

    “They’d just end up taking easy classes like ‘How to draw anime’, or something.”

    in order to really do that in a way that teaches how to draw anime and not just how to copy a pre-existing drawing, you’d have to go into japanese history, american history, art appreciation, anatomy, world mythology, blah blah blah – sounds like a pretty challenging and comprehensive class to me.

    @ karak – I’m sorry for what they did to you. truly sorry. I hope someday you can heal — not just “act normal”, but truly heal. you’re in my thoughts.

  34. Jadey says:

    I am one of those kids that the system worked for, despite all. I also got that ‘gifted’ label, but my elementary school didn’t know what to do with me and was more focused on dealing with the crop of wouldbe juvenile delinquents they were cultivating, so they just gave me as much leeway as I wanted to do whatever the hell I felt like – including ignoring teachers to read at my desk – as long as I kept doing well on tests. My high school, on the otherhand, had a whole fancy program for ‘smart’ kids, and I was blessedly no longer the most arrogant, clever person in the room anymore, which was a much needed check on my ego at the time.

    But I was a girl and my disobediance was sufficiently quiet and no one was interested in diagnosing me or punishing me for being too clever (like when I, as so many clever kids do, spent most of my time figuring out the easiest way to do things, even when those strategies edged into the real of ‘cheating’ – still the most sensible way to succeed by most educational standards). I am also kind of innately charming to teachers in a way that I have never been particularly endearing to anyone else. Even when I am ignoring them to read, somehow I always came across as this ideal student who totally validated their profession. So they just left me alone, and I got off (mostly) unscathed.

    (Admittedly, I’m trying to get out of academia now because I’m starting to worry about how much my life and sense of existence revolves around such a decrepit and anachronistic institution, but that’s another story. Also, unscathed in the classroom, at least, but on the playground was another story.)

    But I’ve seen it do terrible things for my friends. Frustration with the grating hypocrisy of it, early burnout and disenchantment with learning of all kinds, depression and feelings of inadequacy fostered by inappropriate standards and evaluation techniques (not to mention the occasional asshole teacher telling them they’d never graduate because of their diagnosis – love those!).

    I think it worked for me in large part because I was just left alone, with the occasional positive support from a good teacher and minimal contact with the bad ones. But the system as a whole? I think I was a missed target. I don’t know how ‘leaving kids alone’ works for a system as a whole, though – seems like it would only work for some of us. Honestly, it seems like so many things are screwed up. When I talk with teachers (in some districts at least), they’re swamped and drowning, especially with the younger ages where they’re expected to babysit as much as teach. There’s a lot of people who care about improving the education systems in our countries, but there seem to be no resources to really do it.

  35. RVW says:

    “School is not meant to teach knowledge. It is meant to teach conformity. And that is why we allowing bullying, why I honestly say being shoved and hit and spit on taught me character—because if the other children had not brutalized me, I wouldn’t have learned how to act like a ‘normal’ person.”

    Bullying did nothing except cause me to start spending entire periods/days in bathroom stalls trying not to vomit or cry, and the culturally ingrained “be a man!” trope did nothing but convince me to tell precisely no one that I was being bullied. So rather than teach me character, bullying helped turn me into some sort of ridiculous, cowardly “martyr without a cause”.

  36. Politicalguineapig says:

    EG: As far as I could tell, the whole system was designed against students who were trying to learn. I remember being told as a kindergartner that I could only choose picture books from the school library, getting scolded as a first grader for spending too much time with the maps, and being told as a second grader to sit down because I was too enthusiastic about the Greek mythology report and was going over the time allotted. The picture book thing rankled because I was already reading chapter books by then. And I have a slight suspicion that my first grade teacher and gym teacher ignored the fact that I was being bullied because they figured I needed some humbling.
    (First grade teacher might’ve just been really dumb, and while I don’t remember the gym teacher, I know they hate smart and fat kids equally and are given their positions, at least in public schools. specifically because they are sadists. The principal seemed to be of the opinion that bullying built character.)
    Erp, I didn’t mean to write a novel.

  37. EG says:

    Better education won’t change the work structure at McDonalds or Ford.

    Actually, you know what? The more I think about this, the more offensive I find it. Because your argument basically boils down to “It’s good for schools to be miserable, because we should get children used to being treated like shit, so that they’re willing to accept being treated like shit in shitty working conditions for the rest of their lives.” I reject every single part of that. It is not ok for schools to be miserable and remove all pleasure and joy in learning from children. Children should not get used to being treated like shit, and I want them not to be used to it, in large part so that when they’re adults they reject, resist, and fight being treated like shit in shitty working conditions.

    They should learn to kneel now so that spending the rest of their lives on their knees comes more naturally. Fuck that.

  38. mh says:

    Just want to weigh in on the Charter/Magnet/Gifted school issue. As you said, education is a social justice issue. Particularly in Chicago, school choice is being used as a way to undermine the (admittedly broken) system of providing an equal education to all.

    Essentially, school choice rearranges the Chicago student body. The difference is that high-achieving low-income minority kids’ scores are now highlighted and lauded at the school choice schools, where they probably went relatively unnoticed at neighborhood schools. These are kids who have parents who are willing to play Magnet/Charter/Gifted roulette until they win a spot. It’s unclear whether the difference in scores is due to the school or the home environment.

    Beyond “brain drain” from neighborhood schools, there is one really glaring equity issue in Chicago: Magnet, Charter, and Gifted schools are allowed to limit the number of children who enroll. Neighborhood schools are not; they must accept all children within their boundaries who enroll. Essentially, this means that the “choice” schools have more resources per student than the corresponding neighborhood school.

    I don’t disagree that our current education system is foundering, especially with these ideas of “normal,” “disabled,” “different,” and “gifted.” I’m just not seeing anyone come up with a change that has real meaning for low-income, under-educated minority kids: almost all the much-lauded efforts we read about are more about aggregating potentially successful students and dumping unsuccessful ones (not sure what the rules are about IEPs at Charter schools, but I’m guessing they can often opt-out just like private schools do) and not about meeting all kids’ particular, individual educational needs.

  39. DonnaL says:

    They should learn to kneel now so that spending the rest of their lives on their knees comes more naturally. Fuck that.

    I just loved this so much that I had to quote it. Thank you.

  40. Brennan says:

    @ Jadey,

    Heh, I think you and I had the same childhood. Right down to the “inexplicably liked by teachers” part. For me, reading under the desk started in second grade (as soon as I got access to the “chapter books” part of the library) and was allowed to continue because my teacher figured I was getting more out of that anyway. I’m not complaining too much, considering that on the rare occasion that my elementary school tried to do a “gifted program,” I typically got even less out of it. Benevolent neglect was the best gift they could give me.

    Conversations with my mom, though, have gotten me thinking about the priorities of the schools and what skills they consider worth teaching. She’s a speech pathologist working in the Special Ed department, and she’s constantly getting requests for services from the parents of kids she can’t treat. You see, state laws require that for a child to get any kind of special education intervention there be a proven “academic impact.” So my mom, a trained professional in correcting speech deficits, works in schools filled with students with easily fixable impediments, but as long as those kids are passing all the standardized tests she can’t help them. Because, really, who cares if they have a lifelong struggle to communicate, so long as they can fill in the right bubbles on their HSA’s? I find it so ridiculous that schools have the foresight to put a speech therapist on staff but then mandate that they only serve the school’s interest (test scores) rather than meeting the students’ needs.

  41. librarygoose says:

    Very intelligent, bored students are put in accelerated classes if they’re lucky (and if their intelligence happens to be even across subjects)

    This got me because I was a very bright student. Except at math. I suck at math. Through elementary school it was seen as laziness or not important (because my other grades were so high). As long as I could pass everything else with A’s the constant F’s and inability to understand any math after division was…okay.

    But then, in my SENIOR YEAR of high school, I had ONE teacher help me. ONE math teacher bother to make me try harder and change her explanations to help me understand. I ended up getting past a C for the first time in my life. I was getting A’s in calculus. I actual had one teacher say, “I noticed you do a lot of your math backwards.” Really? Why am failing math if I read on a college level at 11? No idea.

  42. Alexandra says:

    I don’t feel I can comment much on this topic, mostly because I was the sort of student who truly excelled in traditional public schools. In part it was due to natural intelligence; I was also biddable and eager to please. Most importantly, I had parents at home who loved learning and were eager to make me love to learn too. I had my share of poor and mediocre teachers, but there were always enough good ones to make school a place I wanted to be, in general.

    I was also bullied pretty badly through middle school and into the beginning of high school – there was a boy in middle school who liked to tell other kids that I was fellating him and who would kick me until I fell down. And in general I was unpopular, mostly because I was, in all honesty, a goody-two-shoes and a know-it-all. But I was also irrepressibly weird: when I didn’t have my head buried in a book I was talking to my fair of imaginary pet dragons, or running around the playground howling like a wolf and chasing the other kids.

    By high school, I rebelled against my bullies, adopted a cruel nickname and made it my own, and finally made friends in school. I also started to talk back to teachers I thought were stupid or ignorant, and I ended up leaving for college at 16, going to St John’s College – whose curriculum is extremely traditional, but the pedagogy is radically egalitarian and based on the idea that everyone is responsible for everyone’s learning – you’re supposed to teach yourself, and then help teach your classmates. I loved it.

    I do think public education, with all its flaws, served me — learning to interact with people who are different from you, and not to disdain people for their differences, is important. If I’d spent all my time in a gifted and talented program, or at a fancy private school, would I have learned those lessons? For all that I was bullied, my own disdain for people I perceived as stupider than me was also toxic, and I think public school helped me learn that no, intelligence is not the most important thing in the world: character and kindness are.

    But these are the experiences of someone with no learning disabilities, who needed no accommodations. It wasn’t until the onset of my own madness, with its severe repercussions for my ability to learn, that I got a taste of what it would be like to be a student with “special needs.”

  43. VikkiM says:

    librarygoose, my experience was similar to yours.

    In science-based subjects I was near the top of my year. But in Maths I was lucky to scrape a pass in the lowest class for my year.

    Yet when I did a subject for my Higher School Certificate that was structured around applied mathematics like accounting, probability and geometry I scored 94% in my final exam.

    My teachers used to say that if the entire exam was multiple choice I’d be at the top of my state and at 17 I had a reading-comprehension age of 31.

    It took me a long time to realise that I wasn’t incapable of doing things, but that the education system isn’t suited to the way I use and process information. I’m a fairly intuitive and lateral thinker.

    It wasn’t until I got to university that I found things I was really good at. When I learned cataloging, indexing and database design it was like I was remembering it, not encountering it for the first time.

  44. Cécile says:

    We bring in children, as if they were a blank slate, and fill them with useful knowledge.

    To whom it may concern:

    Paulo Freire has also written on this structure (Pedagogy of the Oppressed).

    (Or, for anyone feeling particularly boisterous, Hard Times by Dickens is quite a hoot and a howl on the subject, esp. the first and second chapters.)

  45. karak says:

    @RVW: That’s what it’s meant to do. You either conform or you get out. That whole article on here the other day about the school at war with the GLBT kids? The goal is to make them normal, or make them dead. And it’s like that for all of us. The more vulnerable are more likely to end up on the “dead” side of the scale. The less vulnerable–the privileged, the lucky, the neurotypical–conform and keep our heads down.

    @EG: I don’t want schools to be like this. I don’t want life to be like this. But acting like school is a cause and not an effect seems like we’re avoiding the problem. The issue isn’t we have improper teaching procedures; the issue is we’re logically and systemically dehumanizing children so they can spend the rest of the lives as compliant, fearful cogs in a machine. Adjusting our education system will, terribly enough, be doing a disservice to our youth unless we simultaneously attack the system they enter as adults. Which all seems a bit Dr. Horrible-eque hyperbolic on my part, I know.

    @medicalcrab: thank you. Some of my bitterness is showing, I think. I credit my abuse with my ability to wear a “normal” mask, to cope with abuse and misery in some fashion (not a healthy one, but some semblance of “going on”). I don’t think it is a good skill; I don’t think in was in the best interest of my overall mental health, but it’s a skill we have to learn to survive (because the ones that don’t use it often end up killing themselves, literally or figuratively).

    But I also had a lot of good friends and family, so it’s a mask I wear out in public. I have people I can take it off around, and I’m grateful for that.

  46. WordSpinner says:

    @ Brennan–that’s awful. I was the child with a fixable speech issue who did really need my “speech teachers”, but it had no impact on my test scores–and why would it? I could read and listen perfectly fine.

    I went on to do speech and debate in high school and have no problem with public speaking, and I don’t think I could have done it without elementary school speech classes. I went in (before kindergarten) not knowing how to pronounce s’s, z’s, r’s, or l’s, and I wasn’t declared free until a few weeks into sixth grade. I don’t want to know what would have happened if both my elementary schools hadn’t offered me speech therapy. One of them did even I attended!

  47. WordSpinner says:

    Obviously, that last sentence should be “One of them before I even attended!”

  48. EG says:

    Adjusting our education system will, terribly enough, be doing a disservice to our youth unless we simultaneously attack the system they enter as adults.

    That’s where we disagree, then. I think that if we prepare people to be treated like shit when they’re young, they’ll spend all their lives fighting the internal sense that that’s all they can expect. And if we prepare people to be taken seriously and respected when they’re young, they will turn all that energy outward and fight for the same respect when they get out. If we want a critical mass of people who do want to radically change the system we’ve got, good education is one of the potentially best way to achieve that, which is why those in power go out of their way to make sure we can’t have it.

  49. EG says:

    I mean, we could just as easily say that teaching girls to expect respect is just going to make their lives difficult when they encounter sexism, so we should train them to defer to and obey men and boys from an early age. It’s not any more acceptable a sentiment when applied to class instead of gender.

  50. EG says:

    And, and, and gender-non-conforming kids! We should force them to act like the gender stereotypes we’re most comfortable with, because when they get to the real world, not conforming to gender stereotypes will just make it hard for them to fit in. We’ll be doing them a favor by training them to suck it up and accept unhappiness as a condition of life.

  51. LotusBen says:

    I dunno EG. In middle school, the other boys made fun of me for how I crossed my legs–among other things–saying it made me look like a girl. Now I can bench press 210 pounds. Grinding people down into submission works!

  52. j. says:

    RVW:

    Personally, however, I’m kind of attached to the idea of high school as a sort of standardized education. Is it not true that having a common, standardized educational foundation helps societal communication?

    Common material, perhaps. Common environment, hell no.

    mh: Agreed. “School choice” is a right-wing/libertarian buzzword for “to hell with poor people’s kids.”

    EG, #47-49: Damn straight.

  53. Angie unduplicated says:

    @Hannah-My friend with Downs taught himself computers, but Bullytown would not allow him to take computer courses because he was a special-needs student. The office, though, called him when their machines had problems. He is now 25 and unemployable but is the first-line tech choice for the nabe. The school board should have been sued over this.
    I attended ten schools in 12 years and learned that I was a cog in the machine and damned well better grease myself. Bullying at home, three schools, and on the occasional job taught me that the institution will side with the bully. Outside the institution, a well-placed fist on a girl gang’s leader works every time. The Second Wave’s inception in my sophomore year turned the class loner into a mouthy loner with more verbal defenses than the system could handle, a sure precursor of future firings for insubordination.
    Anime? Why not? In E TN, many families had kinship ties to a noted Disney animator or to Marvel’s founder, but art classes remained faithful to the stale pale European male instead of preparing for potential future employment-another system fail.

  54. If I’d grown up now, instead of in the 80’s, I would have been thoroughly medicated and sent to therapy at a young age. Both of these treatments have their limitations, nonetheless I wouldn’t have isolated myself from classmates because of extreme social anxiety.

    Two major issues that have followed me into adulthood are these: a strong fear of being rejected and a constant compulsion to feel loved and accepted. My immediate educational environment did nothing to address either of these issues. I vocalized them so many times to so many counselors and teachers that at the end I half believed I was reading off a script. No one really understood me. I was dismissed or explained as simply gifted and slightly eccentric.

    While involved in the gifted program in elementary school, many different learning strategies were tried. I much preferred it to the passive teaching of the regular classroom. It was a solace from most of the school day. I recall that I was involved in gifted studies all day on Tuesday, a date I always looked forward to.

    Unfortunately for me, gifted education did not exist when I was in Middle School or High School. Middle School, especially, was one of the most traumatic times for me. I know this is true for lots of kids. I could have really benefited from some respite.

    I’m not sure why the gifted program wasn’t more prevalent. I know now that certain parents complained about its supposed exclusivity at the expense of other children. Flaws aside, it was still one of the few times I felt active and persistent engagement with school.

    My learning was usually asymmetrical. For some subjects, like history and literature, I scarcely needed to show up for class. Others, like math and science, I found perplexing and challenging beyond belief. For the latter skills, the same teaching styles were useless for me.

  55. Kaija24 says:

    RE: Finnish educational system…my mother’s family is Finnish and both of my parents are retired US educators, so education and public education policy and implementation have been lifelong subjects of discussion and study in our household. I was also one of those smart and bored kids who loathed public school and couldn’t wait to escape the arbitrary lockstep for university and self-learning.

    The two big differences that leverage the Finnish system are that:
    1) Public education is solely run by educators. Teachers set the guidelines for the national curriculum at large and then individual teachers are empowered to deliver the curriculum in the way that works for their school and their students. There is no meddling from politicians, religion, and parents (and their lawyers)…the teachers are tasked with delivering quality education to ALL students and then left alone to do just that, which international statistics say they are successful in doing.

    2) Public education is a national priority and that is backed up with funding and systemic support, not just rhetoric. Resources are distributed equitably among schools. Teaching is a prestigious and exclusive profession in Finland, with the upper 10% of university graduates vying for a selection number of teaching appointments. Teachers have advanced degrees, are paid well, and are highly valued and respected in the community.

    Yes, Finland also has a well established vocational training program as well as university for post-secondary education. Not all students excel at math/verbal-heavy academic study and good careers are also available to those whose talents lie in working with their hands. Unfortunately, the emphasis on “college” as THE only goal for US students with a stigmatization of vocational education and trades and a proliferation of “college” programs that are vaguely accredited or not at all has muddied the waters of statistics on how many students “go to college”. About 60% of Finnish students go on to complete 4-year university degree programs (for little or no cost) and about 40% go on to vocational/trade training or straight into employment. These rates can’t be directly compared with US statistics as “X% go to college” include those who start college and drop out, those taking online courses, students who take one semester of community college courses, students who go to for-profit “business colleges” that teach what is basically office trade skills, and others.

    There are a lot of thoughtful articles full of facts about the Finnish system vs the US (Google “Finnish educational success”), and much of this has to do with differences in cultural values that can be shifted/changed IF we really want them to and not so much with hard differences between countries or people.

  56. Guest Blogger says:

    mh:
    I hear your arguments, but the problems with Chicago’s schools are deeper and more systemic. First theres the problem with funding by district property tax, which serves to put disadvantaged students at further disadvantage in a city as stratified and segregated as Chicago. Second there is the problem of a teacher’s union (in this city, other places might be different) which generally protects bad teachers and fights any improvement in services that doesn’t come with enough gravy. The way they’ve rallied against a longer school year and more school days in this city is genuinely disgusting. Third is Chicago’s notoriously corrupt city government. There is no incentive for schools in Chicago to do better because, until very recently, there have been no consequences for failing to educate students. We’ve got mobs of bad teachers, scores of genuinely awful schools, and money being spent on numerous six-figure-salaried administrators while students work from out-of-date text books.

    Something needs to change. I think that, in a system as large as Chicago’s, charter/magnet/gifted schools are a great idea because they increase choice and create competition between schools. They also expose the neighborhood school system for being as broken as it is. My ideal would be for neighborhood schools to be eventually phased out of our system entirely and for every school to have to compete for enrollment in order to keep it’s doors open. That doesn’t mean vouchers to pay for Catholic schools, but it ought to mean more independence for individual schools run by the city and more choices for students and their families. We should have technical schools for kids who don’t want to go to college and want to work in a trade. We should have art schools for kids who are good at art. We should have classical programs for kids who flourish under those circumstances, gifted programs, Montessori, Waldorf, any new idea that might better educate a couple of hundred kids. We should have teachers held accountable.

    What we shouldn’t do, however, is lament kids escaping failing schools as “brain drain.” We should not criticize innovative schools for doing successful things that traditional schools cannot, we should criticize traditional schools for their inability and work to fix that. We should limit enrollment, we should have hard limits on class size. We have the money. In Chicago we choose to spend it on Millenium Park, security for G8 and NATO, attempts to get some money for cousins with broken noses in the form of the Olympics, planters in wealthy white neighborhoods, fireworks, salaries for police commissioners that looks suspiciously like payoffs, and fighting against the constitutional rights of citizens all the way up to the Supreme Court. We have the resources to do better, that we have not yet means that we have chosen not to.

    Karak:

    Adjusting our education system will, terribly enough, be doing a disservice to our youth unless we simultaneously attack the system they enter as adults.

    I suppose I have two thoughts on this. My first is that, as bad as “the real world” is, it doesn’t really resemble school as much as many people seem to think. Yeah, there continues to be structure and assholes and torture, but the contours are different. I have had some terrible jobs in my life time and I have always had more agency than I did as a child in school. There isn’t a union available for students, nor political action, nor anything resembling the EEOC. These are important differences.

    My second thought is that if we raise a generation of children not used to kneeling, well, then I suspect they will find it rather difficult to kneel. If we raise them to think, to trust themselves, to educate themselves, to be able to work with one another without directions from on high…

    Will it be difficult? Yes. Will they face trouble? Almost absolutely. Will the world they enter be the same as the one they leave behind when they’ve passed through and made it to retirement? Not even close.

    As for masks, I wore the same one you did for a long time. I’ve since thrown it away because, and this probably comes down to ODD that’s become characterological after 30 years, I’d rather spit blood and sneer than hide. I can still slide it on if the consequences would be too dire, but I’ve found that fewer and fewer situations actually fit that description the longer I’ve been without it. Being normal has become, for me, a manipulation instead of a defense, something I do to get what I want rather than to protect myself from harm.

    Working with mad folks has taught me that the costs of learning to be normal through brutality far outweigh the benefits of being able to pass. There are better ways to teach people when and how to don that mask than beating them until they fall into it and hoping the blood makes it stick.

  57. Guest Blogger says:

    I know now that certain parents complained about its supposed exclusivity at the expense of other children.

    My middle school gifted program was in a three story school building and each floor was, essentially, a different school. The top floor was the gifted program I attended. The middle floor was a bilingual program for the children of recent immigrants who were still in the process of learning English. The bottom floor was a special education program. Care to guess why the whole thing has since been shut down?

  58. Dominique says:

    As a child labeled gifted also, I had a rotten time in school. Usually, I read all the materials in the first week or two, then slept at my desk until the teacher yelled at me to stop doing that. Then I’d look out the window. I couldn’t wait to get out. To this day, it surprises me I even went to university, since I expected it to be as boring as public school.

    The reason the school gave for not skipping me was that I should stay with kids my age. Those were the kids who beat me up. Thanks, school admin.

    University was a lot more interesting and I was happier. However, most jobs out there demand a uni education and it really isn’t the least bit necessary. What they are doing is just vetting people by demanding they have spent $60,000 or so over four years for the privilege of becoming a customer service agent, or what have you. I’m not working in my field at all, either, and I suspect this is the case with a great deal of liberal arts grads.

    There’s a real disconnect out there between an education we will appreciate and the actual work available for decent wages. To me, a large part of this is employers not being willing to train anyone and expecting the educational system to magically supply the skills they need, without consultation or input. Even at the apprenticeship level, many businesses don’t want to train apprentices and they’d rather import qualified workers from Italy and Portugal.

    To say education isn’t for employment, but primarily for self-actualization, or mainly a tool to change the system, is a very privileged thing to say. Most of us can’t afford to spend all that money on “expressing ourselves”. Those of us who don’t come from wealthy families have busted our asses and gotten into debt in the hopes of getting something back. That’s usually a job or career.

    Whether or not I enjoyed my education, whether or not it allows me to change anything in the wider world, first it has to put food in my mouth, clothes on my back and a roof over my head. The rest will follow.

  59. mh says:

    I still disagree with you, William. There is no evidence that supports your assertion that there are ” innovative schools for doing successful things that traditional schools cannot,” in fact, there is mounting evidence against it: http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/chicago-charter-schools/Content?oid=3595045

    School choice depends on parents with initiative who value education (those who “choose” their school.) Does this mean we leave behind the thousands of children whose parents don’t value education, or don’t know to choose a school? Right now, in Chicago under the current system, the kids with the least resources are in the worst-performing schools, and affluent white kids are “choosing” their way out of them, rather than maybe staying and fighting for better teachers, betters textbooks, longer school days, recess, and art.

    I don’t disagree that Chicago Public Schools are particularly rife with administrative abuse, and I’ve never determined how the funding works exactly (there is a per-pupil allotment listed on their website; not sure how they arrive at that number.) But the real issue is less about corruption and more about teachers having to use the same stale educational tools for all their kids, just as you suggest.

    The problem is, the answer to this isn’t “innovation” but money. What we really need is mandatory, free, accredited early childhood education for all children. We need assessment tools for each child that helps determine the best way to teach them – and ways to offer teachers the tools to teach to each child (e.g. smaller classrooms, co-teaching, aides.) We can’t do these things if we waste time crabbing about how high our taxes are.

    If you look at education, the one thing succeeding school districts have in common: money. It isn’t about tying yourself in knots trying to figure out the “how” – it’s about directly investing in the future.

    BTW, for the record – I am not a teacher, I’m a mother with a kid in school.

  60. EG says:

    To say education isn’t for employment, but primarily for self-actualization, or mainly a tool to change the system, is a very privileged thing to say.

    Actually, I would say precisely that about a liberal arts education; it was never supposed to be vocational school for white collar jobs, and in most countries, it still isn’t. The fact that it has become so is not the fault of the colleges and universities; it’s about a reasonably effective attempt on the part of the, you’ll excuse the expression, ruling class, to keep class boundaries hard. And that’s what’s at the root of what’s happening now; now that college has become more feasible for more people (though not the majority), that same ruling class is trying to find another way to firm up the class boundaries.

  61. Guest Blogger says:

    mh:

    Right now, in Chicago under the current system, the kids with the least resources are in the worst-performing schools, and affluent white kids are “choosing” their way out of them, rather than maybe staying and fighting for better teachers, betters textbooks, longer school days, recess, and art.

    You know what? I’ll come right out and say that no child should be expected to stick around in a failing school in the name of political expediency. Its too bad that class is what gives parents the privilege to choose their children out of a failing school, but that doesn’t mean choice is the problem. The problem is that schools are failing. Other schools are not. We ought to be forcing schools that fail to not fail, even if that means firing well connected teachers who have no business selling burgers, much less teaching children, and pissing off their unions. We should be closing schools that don’t work and moving kids to schools that do. We should be firing administrators who, with the incredible amount of money that even poor schools have access to, cannot get their shit together and create an educational environment capable of teaching children. If the money isn’t there we need to change that. Part of that would come from changing the way we fund schools and giving every pupil an equal amount of resources, part of that would demand smacking down the unions who protect lazy teachers, none of that should include expecting children to stay on a sinking ship regardless of their class.

    I’ve been there. It meant that I got a “D” in a special education resources class because I chose to read Nietzsche and listen to Marilyn Manson instead of doing phonics work sheets intended for a child half my age which would already have been below me before grades had numbers. I could have been educated, god knows the special ed teacher who couldn’t work out that the worksheets were inappropriate was being paid enough to educate me, but I wasn’t. I was in that situation because no one gave enough of a shit to do better and I wish to whatever gods might be listening that I had another option, any other option. I was in that situation because, really, what choice did I have? My parents didn’t have the money to send me to a private school, they both worked and had health problems and I wasn’t an only child so they didn’t have the time to have a voice, and already I was viewed as a burden because I was a working class kid with a disability and I should be damned happy that the power that be were so generous and kind to have served me with the steaming plate of shit I got. It could be worse, I was told time and again, especially if I rocked the boat. After all, the tired threat went, the next step for me would be the kind of alternative school for kids waiting until they got picked up for a felony.

    I won’t, and cannot, begrudge anyone their choice.

    I don’t disagree that Chicago Public Schools are particularly rife with administrative abuse,

    If you haven’t been there to see it first hand it is difficult to imagine just how bad it is.

    and I’ve never determined how the funding works exactly (there is a per-pupil allotment listed on their website; not sure how they arrive at that number.)

    Its based on property taxes by district and fund allotments. We spend an obscene amount of money on education, given the outcomes we see. The money is there to do better, but there is no incentive.

    But the real issue is less about corruption and more about teachers having to use the same stale educational tools for all their kids, just as you suggest.

    The problem is about both and more. I’ve spent nine years of my life as a student in the CPS system, worked as a therapist at a tough high school in the CPS system, and one of my close friends has been a teacher in the CPS system for her entire career. I’ve seen this thing up close. Teachers don’t have to use the same stale tools, they choose to. The problem is about a corrupt funding system designed to disadvantage kids, lazy teachers waiting to take their pensions who grow to hate their students for daring to act out after years of neglect, and a complete lack of options for parents or students who are dissatisfied. After all, if you can’t pay for Waldorf or Montessori or the Lab Schools or Latin and you aren’t interested in the Catholics you’re shit out of luck. This is a city where working and middle class parents who aren’t Catholics routinely send their kids to Catholic schools because, for all the problems, they’re better than the appalling state of the money pits Chicago has the audacity to call schools.

    The problem is, the answer to this isn’t “innovation” but money.

    I don’t disagree that we have to spend more money on schools, but that doesn’t magically fix the problem. In 2008 Chicago spent $10,500 per student (a number that varies depending on the school, but we’ll run with it). Thats not chump change. Its an enormous amount of money, its enough money that we really should be able to demand better. To put it in perspective, a student’s education will cost $126,000 over 12 years at that rate. Should we spend more? Yes, but that is only part of the answer. What we also need to be asking is: should nearly $11,000 per year get us better than a prison pipeline and 30 students per room? Just demanding more money is, in my view, letting all of the people who fail students today off the hook. To be blunt, all of the money in the world will not fix a system in which so many of the teachers and administrators refuse to treat children like human beings and do not care about their needs. Money will help the kids who fit and obey and do not annoy, but the rest of us need systemic changes or we’ll just end up with wealthier torturers.

  62. karak says:

    My second thought is that if we raise a generation of children not used to kneeling, well, then I suspect they will find it rather difficult to kneel. If we raise them to think, to trust themselves, to educate themselves, to be able to work with one another without directions from on high…

    That’s where we disagree, then. I think that if we prepare people to be treated like shit when they’re young, they’ll spend all their lives fighting the internal sense that that’s all they can expect. And if we prepare people to be taken seriously and respected when they’re young, they will turn all that energy outward and fight for the same respect when they get out. If we want a critical mass of people who do want to radically change the system we’ve got, good education is one of the potentially best way to achieve that, which is why those in power go out of their way to make sure we can’t have it.

    I admire your courage to fight the good fight, but I’ve spent my last few years doing just about anything for a job. My sense of self-worth and principles haven’t really helped me at all, in fact, they’ve hurt me. I quit jobs where I’m screamed at and stolen from and treated like shit, but no one wants to hire an outspoken spirited person who doesn’t care for kneeling. You cannot eat a principle. It does not keep you warm, it doesn’t shelter you, it doesn’t pay your debts or put gas in your car.

    I have never been so completely dehumanized as I have been in the working world. Even the hideous bullying of school had the silver lining that was wasn’t real, and it wasn’t forever. My job is real, it’s forever, it’s humiliating and I have no choice but to eat the shit it feeds me because I’m 80K in debt and I’m going to be homeless if I don’t. I’ve had principles before. I walked out on abusive jobs, and my car almost got repossessed–a kindly banker pushed the date back two weeks so I could borrow money from my mother. Without that car, I can’t get a job.

    I mean, if you can explain how a generation of strong minded people are going to eat while fighting the system, I’d be intrigued. But I wouldn’t be very helpful. I’d be working for the company they were fighting, head down, because this isn’t the hill I’m going to die on. I have bills to pay.

  63. AMM says:

    I want to say “don’t get me started.” But you did. I’ll try to not run on too long.

    My own experience of school was that it was hell, and that, for the most part, whatever I learned, I learned in spite of the school’s teaching, not because of it. (The main exception I can think of is Latin.) I preferred our public school to the private school that my parents sent me to at first, because the public school was too busy dealing with the real problem kids to spend as much time picking on me as the private school did.

    My experience with my kids in our local school district wasn’t much better. Basically, if the schools doing things whatever way they do them happens to work for your kid, they’re lucky; if it doesn’t (as was the case with both of my kids), you are just SOL. Both of my kids needed some degree of special attention, and giving any kid any kind of special handling is simply beyond the capability of our district. Because my ex-wife and I are white and professional class (and my ex is an attorney), we could get them to pay some attention to us, though they still never actually did anything unless we threatened to sue them.

    As for bullying: I’ve never seen a school that did anything effectual about it, and I don’t think it’s an accident. Schools (public, private, you name it) are organized as burocracies, which means that “might makes right” is the underlying basis of all relationships. And that is the basis of bullying. Any effective challenge to bullying is going to also challenge the basis of every relationship in the school. Not just between students, or between students and teachers, but also between teachers and administration, etc.

    And schools are set up that way because, in Western society, the underlying paradigm for all relationships is dominance/submission. Or, if you prefer, oppressor/oppressee. That’s why sexism[*], racism, and the like are so hard to root out: to really eliminate them (and to make schools something other than prisons), you’d have to completely change every human relationship. A revolution the likes of which we haven’t seen in recorded history.

    [*] obligatory feminism-related reference.

  64. EG says:

    That’s because producing an individual here and there who fights gets you nowhere. Individuals have no chance fighting a system. But public education is a mass system. The point isn’t to get a person here and a person there to buck the system. The point is to get, as William said, a generation, or even a significant portion of a generation, to reject crap conditions. Last time, let me point out, a significant portion of a generation rejected the ideologies that help to run this country, some serious shit went down.

  65. Jadey says:

    I mean, if you can explain how a generation of strong minded people are going to eat while fighting the system, I’d be intrigued.

    I think this is the crux of a lot of social justice organizing. We don’t come together in co-operatives and collectives just to make a political point – we do it to feed ourselves, each other, keep ourselves warm and safe. And by surviving make a political point. For all the ups and downs of the Occupy movements, one of the really interesting things that came out of it was opportunities for people to experiment with just such a thing – rejecting the system, turning off the life support as it were, and still surviving, at least for a time. Not every attempt was a success and long-term sustainability is a work in progress, but as far as field-testing goes, there were some really good lessons learned.

    For me, someone who *does* have opportunities to make a lot of money in the future, the question is how best do I make the resources I’ve be disproportionately granted get to the people who need them in order to keep fighting, rather than giving up to my fears of losing my advantages and accumulating personal wealth instead.

    But I wouldn’t be very helpful. I’d be working for the company they were fighting, head down, because this isn’t the hill I’m going to die on. I have bills to pay.

    I think this is the way things are. Sort of like what William said above to mh – people shouldn’t have to sacrifice their survival and meeting their basic needs for their politics. They may choose to, but they shouldn’t be more obliged to give up their basic survival. Certainly not the way that privileged people who want social justice should be obliged to give up their entitlement to their privileges. I certainly wouldn’t blame someone for surviving and getting by.

  66. Matt says:

    I think there is a large demographic who consider survival to be a privilege, or there would be, if they weren’t, you know, dead. Do you know how many people fuck someone else over so they can survive? Also not being able to pay your bills isn’t certain death. The IRS doesn’t just ice you. There are millions of people on the street who can’t afford to pay the bills. Its very disingenuous to invoke survival like that. That’s the same argument used to defend all sorts of privilege. And unless we are going to play OO, no claiming that some privileges are more expendable than others.

  67. DonnaL says:

    There are millions of people on the street who can’t afford to pay the bills. Its very disingenuous to invoke survival like that.

    What arrogant BS. I’ll bet most of those people, if they had jobs and were able to pay the bills, would choose to keep those jobs and pay those bills, rather than end up on the street, 1000 times out of 1000. Yes, it’s so disingenuous to want to keep a roof over your head and feed your kids and not be in a homeless shelter.

  68. Kristen J. says:

    I believe that the goal of education should be to bring students to a place where they can be functional in the world and follow their own intellectual curiosity; we ought to give students the tools to learn and accept that they might not care much for geometry or dead white novelists paid by the word.

    So much word.

    As for suggestions, I’m not certain. I moved so often as a child that school was sometimes difficult. When we settled in Hawaii, I was very far ahead in some areas and completely deficient in others. My teachers there were amazing. My math teacher saw I was struggling since I didn’t have a grasp of percentages even into high school and spent hours after school taking me through the basics. On the other hand, my literature teacher basically let all of us choose the books we wanted to read and report on from a list of like 200 possible works and my chem teacher would let us design our own experiments. That sort of freedom and personalized attention was fantastic for me and was part of being in a really good public school.

    But Mr. Kristen who also went to public school in Hawaii with teachers who were supportive had less success mainly because of an undiagnosed convergence disorder. They thought he was defiant rather than just having trouble with the materials and he lived up to their worst expectations.

    So I’m not sure if there is a policy or a type of school that works for even most students.

  69. Cécile says:

    Teachers don’t have to use the same stale tools, they choose to. The problem is about a corrupt funding system designed to disadvantage kids, lazy teachers waiting to take their pensions who grow to hate their students for daring to act out after years of neglect.

    Sorry, I can’t leave this lie. Teachers, while they are on a higher echelon and certainly have more power to exercise than students (as far as “changing the system” goes) are still, when it comes down to it, individuals in an enormous system.

    Disadvantaged, neglected, and abused kids take priority—absolutely.

    BUT, I think you’re playing teachers too much as scapegoats. Teachers (not denying that there are poor, lazy, self-interested teachers out there) are also human beings subject to all the draining corruptions of the school system; demoralization and burn-out take constant energy to fend off, when ceaselessly faced with unmanageable class sizes, insufficient resources, and idiotic federal and state demands (i.e. standardized testing—which is the “plantation owner” to teachers’ dual position of “overseer/slave”). And, on top of it all, most teachers only have their classes for one year. Even if they do happen to beat all the odds and single-handedly orchestrate an amazing, diversified education, and amazing, diversified classroom dynamics for one year… there’s plenty of opportunity for it to be totally undone the next year as the students migrate to a new grade… and the next year… and the year after that. If you sought out any number of teachers who you perceived as excellent teachers, and asked them if they feel they are making successful strides in reversing the structural menace of the education system, and whether they are optimistic that they’ll be able to keep expending the same amounts of energy year after year throughout the remainder of their career… I think you’d be met with some very overwhelmed, despondent, and distressed facial expressions.

    the special ed teacher who couldn’t work out that the worksheets were inappropriate

    I’d also object to this all being placed all upon the individuality of teachers—it’s also just the “crest” of an ongoing cycle: it’s also a problem of our higher education system. How are our educators being educated to educate? Especially special education teachers—I honestly have no insight into this, and am very curious to know how many people are taught to assess, interact with, and teach their future students, let alone conceptualize the innumerable types of “challenges” their students could potentially “possess.”

    I’d also warrant that one big problem is teachers who come from rural/suburban communities obtaining their degrees in rural/suburban colleges, and then being filtered into public, urban schools to teach. Then they find themselves in total “culture shock,” that their own relative privilege hadn’t prepared them for, and that their subsequent privileged education didn’t properly equip them for. I’d warrant that it’s a significant enough problem to generalize that there are a fair amount of teachers from such backgrounds who have little, if any, capacity to understand the life circumstances of their students, much less how to properly and effectively identify/respond to their needs. I’ve heard education students from suburban backgrounds practically say outright that, for this very reason, they want to make sure to teach in white suburban schools, where they won’t have to be confronted with these “impossible” problems that they have no comprehension of, and thus, no compassion or conviction for. (the last part, obviously, is my induction, not theirs.)

  70. Falcon says:

    @ 68 I think you are missing the point. That was fucking hilarious. He was saying that dead people would be on the side of their own death. And just look the part you quoted. My favorite was “The IRS doesn’t just ice you”.

    How can you not love that satire?

  71. Guest Blogger says:

    Karak:

    But I wouldn’t be very helpful. I’d be working for the company they were fighting, head down, because this isn’t the hill I’m going to die on. I have bills to pay.

    And I can respect that choice. At the same time, being a cog in the system gives you a little power. Little things, sometimes unnoticed, can amount to substantial change. You don’t have to pile out into the street to provide some kind of insight into how a system works. Hell, when I was a training therapist in a large, lower class, Chicago high school I had no power. But I could see what was happening around me. I could frame questions to look less like gathering evidence and more like curiosity. I could wait and understand and then years later apply that knowledge in a post like this. Am I going to change the world doing that? No, but its clear that more people are thinking about these issues and, for me, thats enough. I’ve never been into the Great Man historical narrative anyway…

    Kristen J.:

    So I’m not sure if there is a policy or a type of school that works for even most students.

    Flexibility. I think the biggest change our educational system needs is to become less rigid and finally drive a stake through the heart of this idea that there can be one policy or type of school that can serve more than a small minority of students. Human beings are deviants, we defy norms, we constantly generate new kinds of difference and just as soon as you think you’ve got a grasp on how we operate you find out that all your new data just leads to bigger questions. As long as we’re looking for a one-size-fits-all system we’re going to fail the majority of kids.

    Cécile:

    Teachers (not denying that there are poor, lazy, self-interested teachers out there) are also human beings subject to all the draining corruptions of the school system; demoralization and burn-out take constant energy to fend off, when ceaselessly faced with unmanageable class sizes, insufficient resources, and idiotic federal and state demands (i.e. standardized testing—which is the “plantation owner” to teachers’ dual position of “overseer/slave”).

    As someone in a helping profession subject to incredible burn out, all I can say is that it is the responsibility of service providers to step back when their own issues get in the way of their jobs. A pharmacist shouldn’t be allowed to not do their job because of a personal issue like religion, a teacher shouldn’t be allowed to not do their job because of burn out. We should absolutely get rid of some of those state and federal demands, we should work to reduce teacher burn out and the things which lead to it, but at the end of the day I have no time for a teacher who harms their students because they’re feeling overwhelmed. I’ve been on the receiving end of that too many times and it very nearly meant giving up on school for me.

    I think you’d be met with some very overwhelmed, despondent, and distressed facial expressions.

    That, to my mind, is part of the problem. The business of changing human beings isn’t for the feint of heart. Graduate programs in psychology have enormous attrition rates and burn out is common even after you’ve graduated. My graduate program emphasized self-care and we still had some truly scary rates of drop out. I’m not sure that exists in the world of education.

    Teachers, in a very real way, aren’t just there to teach a subject. They are there to mold developing human beings. Thats a rough sport and our system is designed to allow people to keep at it long after they have given up the fight.

    I’d also object to this all being placed all upon the individuality of teachers—it’s also just the “crest” of an ongoing cycle: it’s also a problem of our higher education system. How are our educators being educated to educate? Especially special education teachers—I honestly have no insight into this, and am very curious to know how many people are taught to assess, interact with, and teach their future students, let alone conceptualize the innumerable types of “challenges” their students could potentially “possess.”

    I think you raise a valid point here. Still, there are a lot of situations in which the individuality of the teacher is the deciding force. My high school special ed teacher, like so many special ed teachers, had a pretty free hand to do what she wanted because the school viewed her as warehousing failures until we got a job at McDonalds just fulfilling legal obligations until we could be booted out after our senior year a teacher who didn’t have much in the way of standards. Anyone could look at my writing (during that semester I was producing a lot of it in a college level Poli Sci class the school offered) and see that phonics weren’t an issue for me. The fact that I was not helped by her was the personal failure of an individual teacher within the context of a larger system that failed me. She would have been just as useless, and done as much damage through neglect, if she had been in a system that worked better. Reeducation wouldn’t have been much help because it wasn’t a problem of technique but of giving a shit.

    I can resent her, the larger school system in which she worked, and the educational training programs which produced her. And I do, even a dozen years later, because I had to go out and teach myself the things she was supposed to teach me. I was able to do that because I’m intelligent, strong willed, had supportive parents, and enough privilege to be able to mitigate some of the fall out of my failures. Some of my friends weren’t so lucky. Sometimes I wonder how many disabled kids just gave up as they moved through her classroom. I try not to, though, because it hurts.

    I’d warrant that it’s a significant enough problem to generalize that there are a fair amount of teachers from such backgrounds who have little, if any, capacity to understand the life circumstances of their students, much less how to properly and effectively identify/respond to their needs.

    I think this is a very good point, and something we should be doing to help fix schools. In my graduate program there was a heavy emphasis on what was called “diversity competency.” What that meant is that we took several classes designed to, sometimes quite painfully, examine our own privilege and unpack our invisible knapsacks (Off Topic but…if anyone here hasn’t read White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack yet…just go and read it) and that every class we took incorporated an aspect of privilege examining and education around how whatever we were learning might effect or be different in diverse populations. By the end of the program it became difficult not to take any new data and examine it for privilege. Maybe something similar could be incorporated into education programs.

  72. Cécile says:

    I think this is a very good point, and something we should be doing to help fix schools. In my graduate program there was a heavy emphasis on what was called “diversity competency.” What that meant is that we took several classes designed to, sometimes quite painfully, examine our own privilege and unpack our invisible knapsacks

    That sounds awesome! I live in one of the most segregated cities in the nation, in an otherwise overwhelmingly white state (so I totally get many of the issues you’re bringing up about your experiences working in Chicago). Don’t get me wrong, there are amazing things going on here—lots of people who care, working to develop better schools and a better world, and implementing ‘innovative’ teaching methods and philosophies in individual classrooms and schools—but yeah, there are still many “suburban and rural” folks who don’t understand racism and how deeply it warps a metropolitan area that is as segregated as this one. What I definitely don’t mean to do is “hierarchize” child abuse and disadvantaged kids (or even rural/suburban racism)—but when you add rampant racism to the mix, it becomes another beast.

    That’s one thing I feel really optimistic about with public education—urban school systems (at least around here) seem to be ‘on the up and up’ with how they are serving kids who come from communities systematically crippled by racism. I have a weekend job where I work alongside many high school students who live in inner city neighborhoods and go to public schools, and I actually find myself really touched on a regular basis just to be able to witness reflections of some of the positive changes some schools are successfully trying to make. For instance, parallel with ‘3rd/debatably 4th wave feminism,’ I hear a lot of these kids openly speaking (in casual conversation) about things that differentiate them from the “status quo”—sometimes in terms of their abilities, sometimes in terms of their families’ financial limitations—and they speak with such a comfort that tells me that their school was successfully able to create an environment that didn’t allow privilege tyrannical… privilege. I think it’s awesome to see kids be able to speak about their experiences with ableism/classism/sexism, and not have the internalized fear that they’ll be inviting bullying by doing so. In fact, they seem to have the expectation that their listeners will understand and respect what they’re saying. It’s the little things, you know. *single tear*

    ;-)

    Anyway, there are obviously a million more things that have to be done and changed and improved… but it’s nice to see some things taking hold.

  73. Cécile says:

    Still, there are a lot of situations in which the individuality of the teacher is the deciding force. My high school special ed teacher, like so many special ed teachers, had a pretty free hand to do what she wanted because the school viewed her as warehousing failures until we got a job at McDonalds just fulfilling legal obligations until we could be booted out after our senior year a teacher who didn’t have much in the way of standards.

    That’s a good point. I realized, after I posted that comment, that I wasn’t taking into account the personal experience teachers garner throughout their careers. While their own educations might have a massive impact on how they teach for maybe, I don’t know, the first 5 years of their career, I imagine it starts to wane after that, and people begin to operate more on their perceived expertise (and also under the demands of the school). It’s a good point—higher education isn’t like computer programming that eternally determines teachers’ course of action or worldview.

  74. Cécile says:

    we should work to reduce teacher burn out and the things which lead to it, but at the end of the day I have no time for a teacher who harms their students because they’re feeling overwhelmed.

    (“As someone in a helping profession subject to incredible burn out”)—This is also something I personally have very little insight to: in your professional experience, do you feel you have ever been provided with support meant to prevent or counteract burn-out? (Or anyone else reading)

    From a spectator position, that seems like an incredibly important issue—preventing burn-out—because otherwise burn-out leads to the “indirect harm” of neutralizing performance efficacy, before becoming the more “active harms” of marginalizing students, as discussed in your original post.

  75. Kristen J. says:

    Flexibility. I think the biggest change our educational system needs is to become less rigid and finally drive a stake through the heart of this idea that there can be one policy or type of school that can serve more than a small minority of students.

    That’s sort of my point. Even flexibility as a policy failed Mr. Kristen because the teachers didn’t have the expertise to understand what he needed. But that level of expertise would not be useful to the vast majority of students who themselves need teachers with expertise in something else. As a practical matter how can we ensure that every child has the tools and support they need?

  76. Guest Blogger says:

    Cécile:

    This is also something I personally have very little insight to: in your professional experience, do you feel you have ever been provided with support meant to prevent or counteract burn-out?

    We talk a lot about self-care in psychology but it often ends up feeling like lip service, especially in graduate school. I think that in doctoral programs, especially professional schools, part of the way burn out is prevented is by putting trainees through an incredible amount of stress and seeing if they survive. There was a period of time where I had a full time class load, a caseload of 13 patients, was going through an incredibly arduous internship application process (think medical residency), had to sit for my comprehensive exams, was working on my dissertation, and was being very closely supervised and watched for any sign of patient care slipping. Those were my educational obligations; I was also in a band that was getting a lot of work, married, and had family I needed to see once in awhile. I think that part of that process is designed to force professionals to learn how to manage stress and decide priorities because there are times when there just aren’t enough hours in the day or empathy in reserve to handle everything coming at you. There are also times when, frankly, you need to learn to not take your work home with you and walk away.

    Right now I’m fortunate enough to be in a job where my boss is also a psychologist and values self care. I get supervision when I need it, I have colleagues I can vent to (and vice versa), as long as I meet my obligations and do good work with patients I’m given a fairly long leash and no one complains that sometimes theres some kind of bizarre heavy metal with accordions or Uilleann pipes blasting out the door of my office when I’ve got an open hour. The thing about burn out, though, is that its not the same from person to person. I can go out, have a few drinks, spend an hour on a stage in front of an audience, put in some time on the firing range, or get together with some friends and play D&D (shut up I’m a nerd) and be refreshed enough to go forward. At some point I’ll have the money to go into my own analysis and then I’ll have that, too. Support for people in burn out prone positions needs to be support to go be something other than a helping professional: time off, not being on call, case loads and work expectations that are reasonable rather than Herculean.

    Does that help at all? I feel like I’m rambling.

    Kristen J.:

    As a practical matter how can we ensure that every child has the tools and support they need?

    Clinical psychologists who are deeply familiar with diagnostic work to figure out what accommodations and supports students need; well trained, experienced special education teachers/coordinators to provide the services; and school administrations who come down hard on general teachers who don’t cooperate.

  77. Kristen J. says:

    Clinical psychologists who are deeply familiar with diagnostic work to figure out what accommodations and supports students need; well trained, experienced special education teachers/coordinators to provide the services; and school administrations who come down hard on general teachers who don’t cooperate.

    I would agree that is the long term solution, but right now the population of clinical psychologists in our city is something in the range of 1 for every 2000 people. Experienced special education teachers and coordinators are similarly stretched. At least right now, this doesn’t seem like a very practical solution. And what I hear from *everyone* I talk to in the industry is that the solution is more flexible learning! I just don’t buy it as a solution.

  78. Guest Blogger says:

    Kristen J.:

    I hear your when it comes to provider availability, but I’m not sure what else can be done when it comes to special education.

    Actually figuring out what is wrong with a kid in a meaningful sense is difficult. It means a lot of expensive, hard to interpret tests which have to be administered by an experienced and knowledgeable person to be of any real use. Schools should spend money on psychologists and special education teachers, even if that means paying enough to attract competent providers or offering conditional scholarships. You can train a clinical psychologist in a professional program for around $100,000 and the process will take five years. If school districts pooled their resources it would be relatively easy to train up a few providers and hire existing psychologists to handle supervision until everyone has their license. I imagine, although I’m not terribly well versed in educator education (education education?), that you could run a similar program to develop qualified special education teachers. Maybe that means cutting back on sports for a couple of years or firing some middle management, but it needs to be done if we want to be serious about making education more flexible.

    The reality, though, is that aside from the moral need to properly serve students, even an expensive option like this will likely end up being cheaper. Cheaper? Let me walk everyone through what happens in Illinois.

    Say you’ve got a kid who makes it to 11 without ever being diagnosed as having Asperger’s Disorder and ADHD. Up until this point he’s just seemed weird, he’s done poorly in school, he appears defiant and looks a lot like a trouble maker. He’s probably had some special education services, but at some point things come to a head and the school realizes that they can’t serve the child anymore. The first thing that usually happens is that a school either calls in their own psychologist or contracts one to do an exhaustive battery of tests which take up time and money. Meetings are held, parents take off of work, maybe the lawyers get involved, tons of man hours go to writing reports and talking until everyone just wants to pass out. Eventually it is determined that a child would better be served in a therapeutic day school.

    At this point the real money starts to be spent. The therapeutic school is probably around 40 minutes from the student’s home, and different schools have different kind of students they serve so chances are that even if a school has a child in a therapetuic program already this new student will go elsewhere. The school has to provide transportation, so that means a cab there and back every day. Then there is the tuition. The school I work at has our “rate,” the per-day cost of a student attending, set by the state of Illinois based on an annual audit of how we spend our money and the services we provide. Different schools have different rates, but you’re in the right neighborhood if you assume more than $35,000 but less than $45,000 every year until the student graduates. Theres a good chance they’re behind on credits, so that could well mean until they’re 19 or so. Ever three years there needs to be a “Domain Meeting” to determine if services are still required, this is intended to save money but that means more testing. Every year key school officials have to come out to the school for an annual IEP review. The hours pile up, as do the dollars, because the schools cannot deal with some kinds of disability.

    But I don’t really care about the money. I care about the kids who come to my office, after years of not understanding why people are mad at them and treat them like garbage, and have trouble even making it into school because of crippling anxiety. I care about the kids who, in a desperate attempt to find someone who treats them well, end up sexually exploited and have trouble understanding why that feels so bad. I care about the kids who limp into our school and take months to realize that no one is faking giving a shit. I care about the kid who comes into my office, tears in their eyes, and says “please don’t let them make me go back to my old school” because no one has called them a faggot for years. I don’t want to see more of these kids made by a system that can’t be bothered to “waste money” on people they don’t see as having a chance.

  79. Tamsin says:

    Very intelligent, bored students are put in accelerated classes if they’re lucky (and if their intelligence happens to be even across subjects) or subjected to discipline designed to make them less disruptive if they aren’t.

    Not always. I was gifted and bored at school but was also painfully shy and terrified of putting a foot wrong, so I was just ignored and became increasingly miserable. My teachers mostly took the strategy of ignoring my strengths (because the had no idea how to cope with a 10-year-old who was doing basic calculus) and focusing relentlessly on my weaknesses (sports and my shyness and social ineptitude), to the point where I came to believe that I just wasn’t good at anything that mattered! I also have ADD, which meant that I would take longer over things, hand assignments in late etc., which led some of my teachers to assume I was struggling when in fact I was just so bored I couldn’t think clearly.
    I went to a Montessori high school, which suited me much better than the state system. Although the school had its problems, it helped me immensely just because I was allowed to study what interested me, at my own pace and my own level.

  80. Andrea_R says:

    If you can, pull your kids out and homeschool / unschool.

    Before anyone starts with “but parents don;t have a degree” think about this: you;re teaching your kids how to read and write. If your own system did not give you enough knowledge in a subject to pass it on, why on earth would you ever let them do the same to your kids?

  81. j. says:

    Really late, but if you’re still keeping up with comments, William, this article sounds right up your alley.

  82. JenM says:

    Wow. you’re experience of school is exteremly similar to my own. I’ve heard from disabled and non-dsabled people that they had a rough time in school but never anyone who quite understood where it’s coming from.

    Some people in Canada, [where I live] say that conditions are better for kids with disabilities and yet I still hear stories about kids, disabled or not being discrimnited against, bullied and not acomadated by their teachers. I don’t have an easy solution, but I don’t think schools will be better until children are treated as individuals and not just empty slates to be programmed the “right way.”

  83. mh says:

    William, I don’t agree with this article in its entirety, but I do think this points out the fallacy that school choice will do away with “bad teachers.” http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/04/opinion/sunday/confessions-of-a-bad-teacher.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&smid=fb-share

    I do think this teacher is doing a lot of unnecessary whining but I 100% agree that what we call “bad teachers” most often means “lack of tools/resources.” Addressing this critical to addressing the problem in education, and it gets ignored completely when we run away to schools where teachers have appropriate resources. ALL schools need better resources. Scapegoating teachers is easy: fixing the problem is hard.

    BTW, I do know first-hand. I worked for a short time with an advocacy organization who had a vested interest in the charter/magnet system. I was supposed to write about “succeeding” schools. The one story I wrote about a school succeeding despite having the magnet-school overflow dumped on it (meaning hosting classes in hallways due to magnet-school-inflicted overcrowding) was quashed and never saw the light of day. We dealt with administrators on all levels, and you’re right – they are a big part of the problem.

    “Run away” as a strategy only solves the problem for the kids who know how to run. What do we do for the rest of the kids?

  84. William says:

    “Run away” as a strategy only solves the problem for the kids who know how to run. What do we do for the rest of the kids?

    One could turn the question around and ask why we must shackle children when they begin to stand so they never run at all. We can figure out how to teach more kids to run after we’ve broken the chains. It is unconscionable to ask kids who can succeed today to wait until we’ve gotten our shit together, especially when thats a long wait for a train don’t come.

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