Excuses! Excuses! Excuses!

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