Diane Ravitch in her book “Reign of Error” defines the source of educational woes to be from two simple sources: segregation and poverty. Simple sources, yes, but each with very complex remedies. Over both of these, the child has absolutely no control. Nor do the teachers, nor school administration, nor school district. The most crucial parts of a child’s academic achievement are controlled by we the people. We through our elected representatives control legislation that directly effects segregation and poverty.
Now an argument can be raised that the parents of the children are responsible for escaping segregated communities and for escaping poverty. Fine and good, but my point is that it is not the teacher’s, the school administrator’s, or the school’s purview to provide this escape. And it is exactly my point that it is precisely these two things that directly effect parent participation or the lack of it in there child’s educational life. How? By creating and perpetuating a culture of failure in which they themselves and their children become enmeshed.
The most dominant aspect of parent–teacher communication is the destructive effect of this culture of failure. There are four components, which seem to give rise to and help define this culture and perpetuate it. First, is the prevalent notion amongst students that it is cool to keep the parents in the dark about what’s going on at school. Obviously this is nothing new. It has been a factor since the dawn of education and keeping the parents bamboozled about what’s going on at school still tops the charts as the best way to have fun at school and not suffer the scourge of learning. Second, the parents themselves are so involved with work (sometimes holding down two or more jobs each) that they can’t keep abreast of what’s going on with their kids at school. In fact, parents often never darken the doorways of their children’s schools and often can’t be reached for consultation. Their children know this. They not only know it, but feed on the lack of discipline that such a situation provides. Third, it is often very difficult to get through to the parents about your need to communicate with them. And fourth, in our school district there is what I feel to be a euphemized form of tracking that reinforces this culture. There must be a distinction made here between creating the culture and reinforcing it that I will expand upon later.
What are the characteristics of this culture which are created by these components? It is the kids that never do their homework or do it sporadically. If allowed to go unchecked, this can be around 75 to 90% of the students. A teacher has problems even getting most of these kids even to do their classwork. They are mostly quiet well-behaved kids that just sit there and fail. Some of them (particularly the ringleaders) do act out and misbehave out of sheer defiance. As I’ve said before, this is a population with the ethic of “what their parents don’t know won’t hurt them.” It’s funny to them to know that the teachers, counselors, and administrators have given up getting through to the folks. They have their bases covered. They know that the chances are that no one will make the monumental effort necessary to break through and blow their cover. That is if their parents care in the first place. So these kids can turn middle school into a wise guy party with their homies. And few of them ever arrive to caring about their futures, which statistically plays into the 50% drop out rate in high school.
Who are the pacesetters in the culture of failure? If you were talking about a population of children in a magnet, Avid, or honors classes, then the pacesetters would be the achievers, the kids who excel and not only complete all of the classwork and homework, but are the ones who really exhibit proficiency in their work. But you are not talking about this population. You are talking about what is left after you get through taking out the magnet, advanced placement, Avid, and honors students. What is left are ones that do little or nothing, have established poor work habits, think of themselves as failures, feel helpless and hopeless, have family or social problems that cripple their academic achievement, or are underachieving for a myriad of other reasons. They are excluded from the magnet, Avid, and honors classes and from the college bound set by what I believe is a covert tracking system in our schools.
The leaders and the pacesetters in the culture of failure are the ones that sit and do nothing. They become the academic ringleaders for non-achievement and failure. Their classmates support them with high fives and pats on the back, because they validate and justify the experience of failure that the rest of the class is experiencing. They become negative pacesetters for the class.
What about the parents in this subculture? These are the parents that may not have phones or don’t answer them, are running from creditors and constantly changing addresses or phones, are divorced or single parents, are holding down two or three jobs, don’t understand English or the mainstream culture, don’t have more than a fourth grade education themselves and don’t understand what it takes for their child to succeed at the secondary level. These are parents that may be barely making it themselves. Some are even living on the streets.
That’s why the peer groups created by this failing culture are so tight. They have so much in common. They need to provide the support for their members which society and their parents don’t. I’ve seen things that make me stand back in awe. I’ve seen class reactions in certain situations that almost seem orchestrated by some unseen force. But the force is there. It is expressed by a guesture, phrase, or facial expression from the class ringleader or peer leader. It happens quickly and efficiently. And everyone is instantly aware of it because everyone is aware of who this cult leader is.
The objective of the membership of this failing group is to show that they have control of something. It doesn’t mater what. And in providing a degree of control in their refusal to cooperate empowers their group to reach their goal of nonparticipation and comfort in failure.
As I’ve said many teachers try getting through to parents as a remedy to this cultural conflict. But they soon find out that it is virtually impossible to accomplish this with just one phone call. So with their busy schedule they discover that one phone call works about 2 or 3 times out of 10 and then there is a language problem in one of those, so that makes 1 or 2 times out of 10. I’ve found that sending multilingual letters out to parents is effective in 2 or 3 out of 10 mailings.
Actually the most effective way to get through to parents is by texting them. I have reached 7 or 8 out of 10 parents by texting. Most of them have cell phones now making texting the communication of choice. Non English speaking parents are able to have English messages translated by bilingual friends. This also makes every communication a legally binding since they are permanently recorded on servers. The “sent” text proves that they have been received.
However, even though the parent is reached, 2 or 3 out of 10 parents don’t respond for whatever the reason. These parents sometimes will admit at a parent-teacher conference that they have received the texts only when being confronted with the cell phone or tablet records. They don’t feel good about this which is understandable, but they need to realize they are neglecting their child’s education.
So after the teacher makes his or her effort to get through and can’t get a meaningful response either over the phone, texting, email, handwritten or in person, it then becomes a counseling job. This occurs in about half of the situations. So, I then send them to their counselors with failing, no homework, and no parent signed planner on their referral. It now becomes the counselor’s job to get through. In about 1 out of 3 referrals and the counselor is able to contact the parent and provide the teacher with meaningful information. So altogether with one heck of a lot of work you can get through to 5 out of 10 parents of failing students and have a conference either by phone or in person. Then you’ve got to hope and pray that you’ll be able to get the parents on your team and to do something about their kid. And you’ve got to hope and pray that you can convince the kid that this is not to punish him but to help him by creating a team to keep him on track. Most kids and parents in this group don’t realize that it takes a team to make the student successful. They don’t realize that successful students have daily parent, teacher and administrative support. This is where parent education comes in.
A math teacher I co-taught with once posed a question as a math problem to our general ed class just before Christmas break one year and it has been bugging me ever since. I now see clearly that the educational system is segregating the school population into tracks which are designed to separate the drop-out types from the college bound types and systematically eliminate them from high school. And this is done in a way that offers them no other alternatives than the useless college bound curriculum that they can’t use when they drop out of high school.
The question my colleague posed to our class was that if it is a statistical fact that 50% of the kids that enter high school end up dropping out, what part of the kids in our school are the ones that are going to drop out and which ones will stay in? He helped them see the picture more clearly by pointing out that the school was made up of five groups: the gifted magnet, Avid, honors, regular ed., and special ed. Now it is a fact that magnet, Avid, and honors students make up around 40% of the school population. I will now assume that nearly 100% of the magnet, Avid, and honors kids will graduate from high school. That means that out of the 60% remaining students that make up regular ed and special ed. Only 1/6 or 17% of these students will graduate from high school if the 50% graduation statistic is correct. In other words in this apartheid system the odds are that in a general ed. or special ed. classroom only one out of six will graduate from high school.
It is my contention that as long as our educational system continues to group low achieving students together, we as a nation will continue to have high percentages of high school drop outs, and the the culture of failure will continue to rule the regular ed classrooms.
How does this tracking system increase the disastrous effects of the culture of failure in Special Education? It is key to remember here that Special Education is now included with Regular Education for mild to moderately disabled students. In accordance with IDEA, Special Education Students are supposed to be given a free and appropriate public education by including them in with regular education students. But are they really receiving and appropriate education when they are included in the low performing groups which are controlled by the culture of failure leadership?
To start answering this question let us briefly review what is meant by a free and appropriate public education (FAPE). However, because of the lack of a substantial definition of FAPE in IDEA, we must rely on current case law to find our answer.
In the landmark 1982 Hendrick Hudson School District v. Rowley, the Supreme Court established that the objective of FAPE was not to provide an equal or the best opportunity for Special Education children, but to provide a “ ‘basic floor of opportunity’ consisting of access to specialized instruction”. But in subsequent cases such as J.C. v. Central Regional School District (1996) the court held that school districts must provide more than a de minimus of trivial education.” Yell, the author of this source, goes on to say that the courts have not provided a precise definition of whether an education is meaningful or trivial. So the courts need to get their act together and provide this precise definition.
It is my postulate that a system which routinely provides classroom environments for Special Education students with high rates of failure does not provide an environment with the “basic floor of education” for Special Education students and that a “de minimus of trivial education” has not been exceeded. This means that a school district which routinely provides and environment for Special Education students in which an excessive number of students are failing is also not providing FAPE for these students. In short, tracking non-achieving students into the same classes initiates and perpetuates a culture of failure which in the end deprives not only Special Education students but all students of FAPE.
A great injustice lies at the very basis of our educational system that even after Brown v. Board of Education and all the rulings that resulted, still sequesters disadvantaged students into self-perpetuating and self reinforcing classes bound for failure. Does this just prove again that the more things change the more they remain the same? Is the culture of failure is a direct result of students being separated from the culture of success? No, this is a result of segregation and poverty as I said. But this tracking and separation reinforces this cult of failure. And it is another example of the powerful and successful insulating and separating themselves from failure? We must not separate ourselves from failure, but conjoin with it in order to defeat it.
What are possible solutions? One possibility would be to integrate all students so that successful students and their parents could be role models for the failing students. Possibly parents of college bound students could reach out to failing student’s parents and form teams or buddy systems to teach failing student’s parents about how to support and control their errant children. Never the less, we must end segregation in our country and at the same time destroy this culture of failure. We as a country must address the scourge of poverty and its sources. We must focus on creating teams between parents, teachers, and children. A special task force needs to be designed and funded to focus on facilitating communication between parents and teachers.
There are two options: 1) To disband special exclusive classes in order to create classes that are integrated with unbiased representation from all student cultures. Or, 2) to establish quotas which ensure the proportional representation of all student cultures in the classroom.
Barclay Totten copyright 2017