Excuses! Excuses! Excuses!

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I
recall, with great fondness, my early years of teaching – back
when teachers’ lounges were places for exchanging ideas on how to
better serve children. In that third floor room at the Colorado
State School for the Deaf and the Blind, wonderful things happened.
During our lunch breaks, and plan periods, we would – without
any orders from the Powers-That-Be, or from the U.S. Department
of Education – write curriculum, plan projects, and coordinate
team teaching.

For
instance, when we heard that Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s
Dream” would be presented at Colorado College, the English teacher
and I (literature teacher) decided to have the students study the
play, then attend the production. We taught the play in both classrooms;
and at the theater we took turns interpreting the stage production
into American Sign Language. Our students understood everything,
and their eyes sparkled when Puck appeared with the fairy dust.
It was a rewarding experience, but really only one example of informal
curriculum planning conducted by teachers with their priorities
directed towards educating children.

However,
I no longer feel comfortable in teachers’ lounges. I pick up my
mail, then return to eat lunch with my group of 6th graders.
(They dislike the noise of the halls, lunchroom, and gym, so started
a Chess Club in my room.) I spend my plan periods teaching algebra,
via sign language, to a deaf 12th grader who is preparing
for college.

Too
often these days, lounge conversations remind me of the song, “Gee,
Officer Krupke!” from West
Side Story
. During that scene, the gang members cleverly
mimic situations that presently confront too many of our students.
While singing and dancing, the actors pass a "student"
through the system: from the police, to the judge, to the social
worker, to the shrink, back to the police. They do not include a
long-term placement in special education, but still the theme of
“Gee, Officer Krupke!” feels far too familiar:

”The
trouble is he’s crazy! The trouble is he drinks! The trouble is
he’s crazy!
The trouble is he stinks…The trouble is he’s growing! The
trouble is he’s grown! Krupke, we’ve got troubles of our own.”

Staff
members gather, then almost on-cue the excuses and finger-pointing
begin. This disappointing repertoire has replaced the challenging
and enthusiastic plans for educating all children. The excuses even
seem to free staff from any responsibility for developing curriculum,
and modifying teaching methods, so that all children could be successful.

As
in West Side Story, many students are passed around and through
the system. A policeman is assigned to schools, and occasionally
dogs sniff lockers for contraband. A "high school counselor"
is replaced by a social worker without experience in schooling.
A court representative speaks about judicial and foster home placements.
Mental health workers explain their referral and treatment programs.
A work-study coordinator arranges "job shadowing" experiences.
But still we wait for schools to take a responsible and sustained
approach to the prevention of long-term special education placements.
(I’ll wait in my room, thank you. Intelligent, under-estimated youngsters
playing chess is the best show in town.)

Excuses
one hears in the schools
– (The parents are generally the
ones blamed for the failure of the schools to educate children.)

  • If only
    the parents would send the children to school “ready to learn"…

  • If only
    the parents were literate, themselves…

  • If only
    the parents could be bothered to read to their children once
    in awhile…

  • If only
    the parents would spend some of their money on books,
    instead of booze and cigarettes…

  • If only
    the parents would communicate with the schools…

  • If only
    the parents would attend the twice-a-year, fifteen-minute
    parent/teacher conferences…

  • If only
    the parents had kept the family intact…

  • If only
    the parents would get the kids to bed at a decent time…

Granted,
many parents are presently making some very bad choices in marriage,
and very poor decisions in child rearing. However, one should not
be led to believe that schools once taught only the "crème
de la crème." Educators worked hard to educate a developing
America. Children came from "bookless" homes with illiterate
parents. Children came from immigrant families and needed to learn
English. Children often had parents who could not communicate with
the teachers. Children came from one-parent households where mothers
had died in childbirth, or fathers had been killed during wars or
the rigors of life on the frontier. Educating was not easy.

Our
schools have always faced challenges, but the difference –
between "then" and "now" – that I find
especially disturbing is that our schools used to accept all children,
unlabeled, without making excuses, and sought to level the population
UP. By this I mean – children came from a variety of homes
and backgrounds, but the school rules and expectations were the
same for every child. Every child could gain an education, leave
poverty behind, and work their way up through the flexible class
divisions in America. Now, however, it appears that our schools
are leveling the population DOWN in even the ‘normal’ classes; and
often showing negative gains in many special education programs.

Excuses
one does not hear in schools
:

  • We
    failed to diagnose and remediate soon enough, so now it will
    be very difficult to get this child caught up to
    grade level. We are prepared to provide the
    child with skilled, one-on-one instruction
    to help undo some of the harm done.

  • We
    failed to teach this child to read. We should have used phonics
    to help the child understand the Code in which the
    language of English is recorded in print form.
    We’ll begin now.

  • We
    failed to set measurable and accountable goals and objectives, so
    this child has spent too much time on meaningless seatwork
    and has gained almost nothing during his years in Special Ed.

  • We
    failed to demand that teacher-training programs provide us with
    teachers who are properly trained to:

    1. Provide
      skilled, focused, goal-specific, direct instruction
    2. Do
      diagnostic and prescription planning and teaching
    3. Write
      goals that would ‘repair, remediate, release’ students
      from Special Education
    4. Actually
      teach children to read

No,
we will not hear such excuses and confessions, and schools will
not reduce enrollments in special education. At least these things
will not occur until schools admit their role in creating the problem
of failing students and dead-end special education services. Schools
must change curriculum, teacher training, and administrative priorities.
Schools must develop and enforce programming that will actually
prevent most labeling and most special placements. Schools must
aggressively direct their resources towards remediating and releasing
the children currently trapped in the system.

If
schools continue as they are; failing to teach all children to read
by the end of second grade, the poor readers will continue to end
up in special education classes. If special ed classes continue
to provide little instruction, they will still "graduate"
uneducated and illiterate young adults. Most of these incompetent
young people will be condemned to lives spent at low-paying jobs,
or lives dependent on welfare/hand-outs from better-educated workers.
Many of these causalities will find no satisfaction in either of
these choices, and will turn to lives of crime, ending up in the
hands of an ‘Officer Krupke,’ just as the characters did in West
Side Story. The educational system is well financed, and should
perform far better than it does. It is time that taxpayers demand
real reforms, real accountability, and real value for their money.
It is time that American families do whatever necessary to educate
and save their children.

December
11, 2002

Linda
Schrock Taylor [send
her mail
] lives in northern-lower
Michigan, where she is a special education teacher; a free-lance
writer; and the owner of “The Learning Clinic,” where real reading,
and real math, are taught effectively and efficiently.

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