Edward Udel: Quid pro quos of public education
DALTON — "I am asking for a favor " In exchange for a few indisputable facts about public education in Pittsfield, Massachusetts and the nation, I ask all recently elected officials to provide voters with the apolitical truth about their schools. Our children are too important to be used as political pawns.
Fact 1. Pittsfield is one of hundreds of communities across our country struggling to hire and retain quality teachers. A recent national Gallup poll directed at school superintendents showed that 61 percent of them considered the hiring and retention of quality teachers as their greatest challenge. Teachers are leaving the profession faster than they can be replaced, especially in communities with concentrated poverty.
Over 60 percent of the children attending the Pittsfield Public Schools qualify for the free or reduced lunch program. When I retired from the Pittsfield Public Schools in 2004, approximately 45 percent qualified. Many Pittsfield families struggle with what has been euphemistically called "food insecurity" and that struggle is obviously growing. Poverty and financial need generate a host of serious consequences that directly impact academic motivation, performance and discipline.
Fact 2: School committees in our commonwealth have lost much of their power to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The decline of discipline is not new. It was a factor years ago when I watched three outstanding but frustrated English teachers leave Taconic High School for other systems. It was a factor several years ago at Pittsfield High School when an exceptional math teacher left because students with excessive absences were invited to walk across the Tanglewood stage to receive their diplomas. It just so happens that the decline in discipline and academic standards aligns with and is a direct product of the state's increasing intrusion into local education, ironically motivated by the quest for greater accountability.
ROCKS AND HARD PLACES
Fact 3: Context is important. Public schools located within the borders of Boston's "bedroom communities" have very different challenges than their counterparts located in Massachusetts' gateway cities (including Pittsfield). Wealthy communities where homes sell for an average of $1.4 million are heavily populated by highly paid professionals and college graduates. Their children tend to be highly motivated students. Parental expectations are clear and often unyielding. If students falter, resources are available for private tutoring including SAT and ACT preparation. Guidance and adjustment counselors in those communities are tasked with suicide prevention for children whose lives are often micro-managed and overscheduled to create the type of student profiles coveted by the most demanding colleges.
Gateway communities face far more serious challenges yet they are graded by the same state standards. They too are required to submit yearly reports governing absenteeism, graduation rates, MCAS scores and suspensions. The state sets goals for each district for each of these categories and failure to meet them over a prolonged period results in state takeovers. Gateway schools operate between unyielding rocks and the hardest of places. Their counterparts in wealthier communities not so much. For them, the state mandates may rise to a nuisance level, but hardly represent a takeover threat.
The Massachusetts Department of Education has a simple goal. Reduce suspensions, increase graduation rates and produce favorable MCAS data. This is achieved with a simple mechanism; intimidation and the threat of a state takeover. The ironic linkage between improved data and weaker schools represents the narrowing space between rocks and hard places where educators must operate. The pressure imposed upon principals by these mandates can make for a tense and anxious climate. It is no wonder that teachers are leaving gateway communities at a disturbing rate. Salaries may be a factor but the quest for authenticity and sanity are probably greater contributors.
Families, not schools, are at the heart of the crisis. The state's mandated programs aimed at ramping up school accountability ignore that fact. No mayor, superintendent or school committee, no matter how well intentioned, can fix this problem without major changes in state policy. It is becoming harder and harder to find outstanding superintendents like Jake McCandless who are willing to subject themselves to the constant stress of navigating through minefields created by well-intended but damaging state mandates.
It is long past time to remove the shackles of state accountability. We must also change what is happening in our homes. Poverty, drug addiction, abuse, neglect and myriad other societal ills are increasing. They are not the fertile soil required to grow good students.
A longtime educator, Edward Udel is an occasional Eagle contributor.
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