Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Highly Qualified Indeed

I did my student teaching at an inner-city middle school in Gainesville, Florida. Since I'll be qualifying much throughout this post, allow me to qualify "inner-city" as applied to the relatively small, North Florida university town that is Gainesville. I'm talking about the Eastside. Specifically, key neighborhoods located on the "Other" side of the railroad tracks running across what used to be the middle of town back in the late 1800s. Long after Brown Vs. the Board o' Ed., de facto segregation remains a pesky problem for lots of cities in lots of states, so, in itself, nada very notable for an area of Florida known more for pick-up trucks, gun racks, Gator fans, and other thangs people of color tend to avoid outta necessity and/or disgust. Go figure.

The school I taught in used to be called Lincoln High School. It was the 'Black' school right up until desegregation. In 1988, when I arrived to start my student teaching, it was still known as a 'Black' school, though "inner-city" was the way it was described to me on the day our professor handed out internship assignments. I was told young teachers didn't last or stay very long there. What was true 20 years ago, remains true today in similar schools across the country: high rates of teacher turnover, low levels of student performance blamed largely on teachers who tend to be inexperienced or simply ineffective.

"Student Teacher" is another way of saying "Intern." Unlike in the fields of medicine and law, education's interns must pay for the part of their preparation where they're actually on site, teaching, grading papers, lesson planning, and taking all sortsa shit from oft physically imposing adolescents smelling fresh blood. The semester I 'student taught,' I was paying for 8 graduate level credit hours while busting my ass doing a "real" (or shall I say "Highly Qualified?") teacher's job.

So there I was. Teaching five sections of 7th grade language arts. Up at 5:30 a.m. In my classroom, greeting sleepy students at 7:45. Staying until 4 or 4:30, then running back to campus for an evening class. I was 25, working my first set o' 140 kids in the spring semester of a one-year, 'terminal' Master's degree program. I knew how to design snappy lesson plans, had taken all sorts of under- and graduate level education courses, so my supervising teacher let me take the reins after one week of teaching 2 classes, and observing her other three. Was I prepared? Sorta. Certainly not for the kids' aggression, rudeness, abject need of and want for love and attention (negative or otherwise). What course or test could have prepared me for Child Services workers coming into my classroom to take away a girl who'd been beaten by her mother's boyfriend the night before, for the kid whose colostomy bag ruptured in class, for roomfuls of 30+, hormonally charged 13 year-olds? Was I "Highly Qualified" for any of that? Fuck no!

Well, OK, I admit, I was Highly Qualified in at least one sense: as in "Allow me to qualify 'inner-city'," or the phrase "in a qualified sense." Such qualification often amounts to another handy item in any politician's or prevaricator's toolbox. Consider the latest from the Federal courts (from a Clinton appointee, no less) on the matter of "Highly Qualified Teachers." Better, read a snippet of the press release from the public interest law firm representing plaintiffs in the case:

Federal Court Rules Against Families & Education Advocates: Teachers in Training are “Highly Qualified” Under No Child Left Behind

San Francisco, CA – In a closely watched case of national significance, a federal court in San Francisco upheld U.S. Department of Education regulations today that label thousands of teachers still training for their full credential as “highly qualified” under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. A coalition of California parents, students, and community groups, represented by civil rights law firm Public Advocates and pro bono lawyers from Goodwin Procter LLP, contended that the regulations violate the clear standard Congress set in the Act when it defined “highly qualified” teachers as only those who meet a state’s “full” or most complete level of certification. Even the Defendant U.S. Department of Education has consistently recognized “full certification” as including only those who have completed teacher preparation programs. Yet, the regulation also labels as “highly qualified” teachers who are still “participating in an alternative route to certification” and making “progress towards full certification.”

The rule has the effect of delaying equitable distribution of fully credentialed teachers to low-income students and depriving families of accurate information about the qualifications of teachers in their school and district to which they are entitled under NCLB. More than 10,000 intern teachers in California and over 100,000 nationwide are labeled as “highly qualified” under the Department’s regulation and are disproportionately concentrated at low-performing schools serving low-income students and students of color.

While I agree with the Public Advocates' take on the ruling (i.e., more inequity, disproportionate amounts of crappy or inexperienced teachers serving in low-performing schools ["inner city" anyone?]), the fact that most teacher preparation programs suck in a host of ways goes largely ignored. I graduated from one of the better programs in the country. Nationally recognized. Still utterly inadequate. MUCH more on this in future posts.

For now, suffice to say that "Fully Certified" can mean little more than course completion and a passing grade on a content or 'area of specialization' test. Feel very free to liken the process and product of teacher qualification to kids passing a high school exit exam and still not being anywhere near ready for college level work.

Am I saying that all certified teachers can't teach? No. I'm just trying to say that there are many games being played on the profession, on the public, and, ultimately on the vastly underserved students in our country's secondary schools.

And now, a message to the federal judge who decided that interns are Highly Qualified -- with sincere apologies to The Outlaw Josey Wales:

"Don't piss on my back then tell me it's rainin'."

More Soon,
Respect and Thanks Now,
Eliot Suarez

The Lamentable Truth

Teaching kills. To be more precise: being a classroom teacher in a U.S. secondary school (6-12) is muy hazardous to one's mental and physical health. I oughta know. I've taught in 3 states -- Florida, New York, and California --- all known for stupendous levels of educational mediocrity, high degrees of so-called accountability, false starts, underfunded mandates, inhumane propositions, idiotic Republican governors, dumbed down state tests, and inordinate amounts of corporatization. And let's not forget their electoral import in this time of Barack and McCain.

Depending on who you talk to, the states I've taught in are recognized as trailblazers and/or noisemakers. Were they part of a police line-up, I'd recommend fingering New York. At least it had the collective smarts to go with a Democratic Governor, currently a vision-impaired African-American (who's managed to unite a fractured statehouse in his first 100 days), but, alas, formerly a man after Bill Clinton's deeply conflicted heart. Gotta give it up for the whore monger. And speaking of whores and the people who fuck them, let me get back on, um, message: Our high schools and middle schools are seriously fucked. While the reasons are multiple, I will do my best to focus on what I know: teachers, and teaching, and the multitude of morons supposedly trying to help them.

My purpose herein is not to denigrate teachers or the lifestyle imposed by the so-called profession (What, exactly, is being professed? A devotion to the almighty test score? Psychometrics? An over-reliance on dry-erase markers and their swoon-inducing scent?). No.
My purpose is to declare as loudly as I can:

Teaching is one of the most noble forms of public service. Our teachers need more help and support than ever. Our future depends on it.

The hyper-scrutiny they're subjected to amounts to a violent act of betrayal. We owe our good teachers much more than what we perennially, chronically give them on a number of fronts. And I am here to let you know: Something's gotta give. In fact, something will give, something is giving, and it's as ugly as our drop-out rates, as the still-relative dearth of Blacks and Latinos earning graduate degrees , as the business community's constant complaints of under prepared workers, as painful as the tens of thousands of dollars a community college freshman has to shell out for remedial coursework because s/he only learned how to bubble things in correctly, as ugly as the utter and abject waste of precious human capital on both sides of the desk (to put it in terms that even the assholes running the American Enterprise Institute would understand), so to speak. We all suffer when teachers and students lose on such an epic scale.

May this blog do what it can to change the game, bit by bit. After all, I'm a Highly Qualified Screecher (oh so much more on that later).

I'll conclude this maiden post with two pithy-ass things on my mind this very minute:

1) The only good things about Margaret Spellings can be found on her face: What she does with her bangs, and her exquisite choice of eye wear.

2) The worst thing I can possibly call you in this blog: Rod Paige.

Much More Soon,
My Love and Respect Now,
Eliot Suarez