Ideas on education, the English language, and the teaching profession.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Supersize me...

This past week over 5300 kids were enrolled at Horizon Center. The Horizon campus includes over five multi-storied buildings and encompasses the whole horizon from nearly a mile away thus earning its name. However, the classes are still horribly overfilled and space is very cramped. Teachers often instruct (or at least, try to instruct) classes of over thirty kids, some left standing because of the lack of desks. Every room has a class in it all eight periods including the cafeteria, auditorium, and library. The students in halls stop at foot-traffic jams, and some of the more aggressive personalities flare up in hallway rage. The building becomes unnaturally warm from the presence of so many people. This center of learning and development for adolescents quite literally overflows with them.

Horizon takes the lead for sheer numbers of students, but nearly forty other high schools in the district share the burden of overpopulation. To address the shortage of space, the schools tack on more and more portables, never minding the fact that their solution is temporary, inadequate, and ugly. To address the problem of effectively managing such large crowds and the large accompanying staff, the schools usually just let the teachers fend for themselves and hire more security. Accordingly, no one bothers to properly furnish classrooms lacking a phone and working computer except generous teachers who will buy these things themselves. Even teachers without rooms (also known as “floaters”) are obliged to snatch any stray carts they can find since the school cannot provide new ones.

At the helm of this sprawling school district (eight times bigger than any other district in the metroplex) sits a massive bureaucracy with more layers than an onion. They answer their under-equipped educators drowning in a sea of kids by enforcing more teacher orientations. These tedious orientations coin more useless teaching buzzwords like "teacher-student synergy" and "cross-department interdisciplinary pedagogical development" along with demonstrating the new expensive teaching software that will never be available in the classrooms. All the teachers in the district can attest to the incompetence of the HR department that forces new applicants to waylay the administrator in charge of their application papers in the parking lot before they can get in their office. In keeping with their organizational ineptitude, HR, which oddly works on a 4-day schedule during summer, always fails to fill every teaching position resulting in a number of substitutes teaching the overcrowded classrooms for the year. To their credit, the district's administrators can very skillfully evade every form of accountability and sustain their useless existence somehow. Furthermore, the development of the Internet has facilitated their lack of accountability even more by taking human beings completely out of the picture. The huge hive of offices and their bureaucratic bees only need to refer a person to the website plagued with bugs before they take their two hour lunch break.

In light of these problems that betray themselves so quickly, few people clamor for the reduction of the monstrous size of the district, the schools, or the administration. Parents, editorialists, and politicians alike push for additional funding for this dysfunctional educational quagmire that desperately needs to be completely dissolved and reorganized. Horizon does not need more portables or another floor in their main building; it needs to be split into six schools. The district of Horizon does not need to assume other failing districts nor does it need redundant departments and their ongoing "investigations"; it needs to be broken down into seven smaller districts. The overwhelming magnitude of responsibilities drowns everyone from superintendents to teachers who all suffer terrible turnover rates. Kids don't exaggerate when they equate school with a prison or factory. They really do become numbers with ID Cards in a huge system of crowd control faced with complete anonymity in an ugly world filled with graffiti and many unhappy people.

People misinterpret the success of private schools, charter schools, and schools in suburban school districts. They attribute their success to well-reared kids with educated caring parents that have the financial resources to help them. While these factors do play a part in their success, the real virtue of those schools lies in their small size. With less money to work with, they wisely handle as many students as they know they can handle. The teachers receive their basic needs like a computer and phone along with a deducted paycheck, and they gladly accept it for manageable classrooms and a supportive faculty. Many of them don't even have actual certification, but they frequently achieve more success than the seasoned teacher with a graduate degree in education working in a public school. Obviously, more funding and training do not make better teachers, but the environment does.

Unfortunately, the mammoth school district continues to roam through an ice age of academic progress oblivious to common sense. It has a monopoly over the city’s youth and thus has no real incentive to improve. Until all kids can have room to think and breathe easily, a few concerned parents with ample means will scurry off to the suburbs or the nearest parochial school. Unfortunately, the rest of the kids will fend for themselves in a Malthusian nightmare promoting the strong (and often dishonest) and condemning the weak and disadvantaged.

1 comment:

corbusier said...

Excellent post. I remember my final few years in high-school feeling more and more like a prison. I came across an excellent essay by Paul Graham, a venture capitalist and founder of several startups. He describes the social reality of schools as the prisons that they are rather than as places to learn. Check it out-

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