As I mentioned in my previous post, I am talking about education reform with my advanced writing students at the rural state college I teach at. At the beginning of the semester, while going over the syllabus, when I mentioned that we would be talking about education reform, I felt the air go out of the room, saw eyes glazing over, and realized I was quickly losing my class on the first day. What was I going to do? Rebrand the section of the course. We were going to talk about why high school sucks (academically), and what could be done about it.
When we came to the unit on education, I started with a free write asking them the first part of that question, reminding them to focus on the academic parts of their high school experience. And, if their high school didn't suck academically, explain why. Most of my students wrote more in that free write than the entire semester thus far put together. I received spontaneous and passionate reflections on their experiences, many filled with anger, frustration, and regret.
A few themes emerged from their work. The curriculum was too easy and too repetitive, not to mention irrelevant. Teachers weren't demanding enough of the students and inconsistent in how they distributed grades. For example, if you were on the football team, you got good grades regardless. Teachers didn't know their material or weren't engaging (human tape recorders, as one student put it). Students were taught to the test and nothing else. In other words, the students were forced to memorize, but never shown how to contextualize or apply the information. There was too little choice, too few opportunities for students to learn about what they were interested in. And, most significantly, they arrived at college wholly unprepared and ill-equipped academically.
Over and over, I read the words "pointless," "a joke," and "boring." Many of my students probably only realized this once they reached college. Looking back now, they remember most fondly those teachers who pushed them to be their best, and not just on a standardized test. Out of the forty or so students I had answer this question, only three came back with positive experiences. Each of them had gone to private or magnate school with high academic expectations and excellent teachers. Each one of them also attended school in or near an urban area.
When we talk about school choice, what is forgotten are the large numbers of students for whom the only choice is the local school that serves the entire county or region. The teachers often attended the school themselves, left for a few years to get a teaching degree, then returned home. Because of the decreasing number of students, lack of resources, and lack of expertise, these schools can't offer students very many academically challenging courses or optional courses. Some of these schools are in areas where there isn't even high-speed Internet access. When talking about education technology, one of my students pointed to a preschool teacher using a CD player that she had recently seen. For some, the CD player and VCR are the only education technology available.
None of what my students said will sound particularly groundbreaking or revealing to those seeking to reform and transform the way we educate students. The challenge becomes how to solve these problems in rural areas. How do we offer these students choices and variety, or ensure that they have excellent teachers? How can we relate and contextualize the curriculum to the world around them, both preparing them for college but also relating it to the only reality they know? If these schools are ultimately "punished" through No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, where are the students going to go?
Many have already (rightly) criticized the film Waiting for Superman along with the image it presents (one hero to swoop in and save us all). For rural students and schools, it is even more telling: Superman left the farm to go and save the city. For these students and schools, the message seems to be clear: you are on your own.
About the Author
Dr. Lee Skallerup Bessette is currently an English Instructor at Morehead State University in Kentucky. She has taught at Florida A&M University and California State University, San Bernardino. She might not have a PhD in writing or education (it's in comparative literature), but she is passionate about education, helping ensure college readiness in students, especially non-traditional ones, and the general future of higher education. You can follow her on Twitter (@readywriting) or check out her blog at collegereadywriting.blogspot.