Sunday, December 18, 2011

Rest in Peace, Prince George's County.

This post is based on the following article from the Post, "The Promise: Two wealthy men set out to transform the lives of 59 fifth graders."

In 1988, two millionaires from the DC metropolitan area decided to change the lives of a group of impoverished students in one of Prince George's County's poorest areas by announcing that they would pay for the kids' college tuition (matched to the tuition of the University of Maryland, College Park). Now, the Post has caught up with many of the students to report on the outcome of this social experiment. A little more than half of the students pursued college. About a fifth graduated from college. Today, most of "the Dreamers" hold jobs that don't require any collegiate work - barbers, repairmen, waiters, technicians - though some hold what we as an American society would classify as "the American Dream" jobs - a politician, two medical professionals, and a scientist...

I've been to Seat Pleasant. My certification class for mathematics instruction this year is in Seat Pleasant. While it certainly does not live up to its name, I would not say that it looks any more or less impoverished that the majority of Prince George's County. According to the article, though, Seat Pleasant has probably always been quite run-down and the rest of the County probably followed suit a short while later. Reading through the comments on the article, a few major thoughts came to mind.

The first is that this is another prime example of the saying that money doesn't solve problems. This county has a reputation for believing things and not people solve problems. We outfit our classrooms with expensive technology, but cannot be bothered to pay our teachers a salary equal to what our teachers are facing in the classroom. Instead, we fly officials out of the country to recruit cheaper teachers. We say our children come first, but truly, shortcuts come first. These two men, with good intentions, probably thought, "Hey, a lot of underprivileged students don't go to college because they can't afford it. What if they could?"

Okay, so now these 59 kids have the funds to attend college. But who is going to help them realize that they need or want to go to college? Who is going to support them through the journey of the next seven years that come before going to college? Who in their family even knows the first thing about applying to or succeeding in college? Who is going to help them change their attitude and perseverance in academics so that they even have a chance to be accepted into a college?

A lot of the kids in the group didn't seem too keen on seven more years of schooling, much less eleven more. Already, they were struggling with elementary school, why would money alone change their trajectory? While I do believe that many underprivileged students probably don't pursue college because it is too financially difficult to weather, I think that this article says more. All 59 students were told, if you want to, you can go. Twenty-four of them didn't want to.

The second thought that is that family plays an integral role in a child's success. Though the children had a mentor, the mentor either could not or wasn't prepared enough to influence the kids' attitude on learning. On several occasions, the principal had to sit in the room to ensure a sense of calm in the class. I'm not sure if a different mentor would have changed the outcome of this story at all. As much as the general public would like to think, a teacher can't magically cause a student to want to learn and succeed. We can try, but if you go home to a family that counters those seven hours of work that we just put in, seldom will we "win." And it's not all about your family or your teacher. I feel a lot of education talk today forgets about the stakeholder in the middle of it all: the student. Sure, when you're young you might not realize why you're in school or what purpose it will serve you. Adults might talk to you at every which angle to try to help you understand, but if you don't, you will be hard-pressed to attempt to do well. Few people work hard at things in which they feel there is no purpose to do so. I feel that today we don't put enough emphasis on the self-motivation of the child. We blame the adults for not doing enough, but I am sure that there are circumstances where the environment is nurturing (not so much in the case of the Seat Pleasant 59), but the child still turns to a life of mistakes or crimes.

This is not to say that adults don't play a large role, either, though. I just believe that the role of the student is so diminished, that we don't hold students responsible for their choices. However, as adults who have been there and done that, we should be able to be the best influence on our students as possible. Good teachers and parents are huge. Supportive teachers and parents are huge. And Prince George's County lacks both in a noticeable capacity. Recently, Mayor Bloomberg of NYC stated that teachers today come from the bottom 20% of college graduates. A lot of outrage ensued. I'm outraged. It's insulting. But, it's insulting partly because it's true in a way. I didn't excel in college, which is one reason why I found teaching more accessible than becoming a doctor (original aspiration), I wouldn't say I was the bottom 20%. But, if you walk the halls of my school in PG, and this is not meant to be an insult to my colleagues, barely any of the schools are recognizable or newsworthy. Many of the teachers I work with tell me that they didn't excel in school, like their students. In some ways, I thought that not excelling in college would help me to relate to my students, however, it has made it harder. College was not my shining moment, but high school was cake.

I was never a particularly motivated student, but I did my work and paid attention in class. My parents never finished high school, but expressed the importance of education to me as a child. In elementary school, they would look over my math homework. I remember that I was scared to let them know when I received a D on a worksheet in the 4th grade. They were not the extreme Asian parents that you might read about in the newspaper, but I knew that I should do well. Even so, doing well, A's and B's, wasn't difficult to me. I know that I could have been a 4.0 student had I put more work into it. I was nearly a straight A student, aside from math (which I am now teaching, ironically). But I didn't feel the drive that my sister did. I liked to be a good version of myself, but never felt the need to be the best version of myself. Similarly, most my students don't have the drive that it requires to succeed in school. To be completely candid, they aren't as fortunate as myself and aren't able to succeed without much effort. Many of my kids' parents seem like they aren't concerned with their student's education or as if they have given up on caring, as it hasn't yielded many results. The way I see PG County is in three scenarios: 1. an initially caring parent, who is probably low on resources, is defeated by the child's resistance and influence of peers who have unsupportive parents, 2. an initially uncaring parent who produces uncaring students who infect their peers, and 3. a continuously caring parent, who despite the hostile environment is determined to break the cycle, no matter the work required, and the child who responds to this attitude. Unfortunately, most of my parents come from scenarios 1 and 2. Scenario 1 is unfortunate, but scenario 2 has led me to believe that when I retire, I will run a free condom truck with several route throughout Prince George's County to prevent people who don't know how to have children from having children.

The third thought is that if money is not the solution, then what is? Ironically, education is the solution to education. Parents need to be educated in the ways to support their child. Parents also need to be educated in the ways to teach their children proper life etiquette. Too many of my students don't understand the reasons why we don't just yell out in class, talk during a test, throw items across the room... Not-yet parents need to be educated in the ways to not produce children when 1. they don't have the financial stability to provide for a child and 2. they don't have the desire to dedicate at least 18 years of their lives to fostering a productive and caring member of society. Teachers need to be educated, too. I wouldn't say that more formal schooling would really help. What we need is more time as lead teachers with mentorship. What we need is to experience and learn from examples of good teaching. In my years of being a PG County teacher I have seen few role models of good teachers. I don't know how to be a better teacher because I simply have not seen what that looks like in a place where students don't come to class on time or at all. Students need to be educated on why they go to school, and not just to the extent that they spit out answers such as "to get a good job" or "to go to college." Education is SO much more than that. And while students should have the right to attend a free public school to gain an education, I really do believe that students who do not take advantage of the opportunity should be released of the requirement for a year so that they have some time for reflection. Forcing kids who don't want to be in school to be in school is not only detrimental to the student - s/he doesn't learn anything - it's detrimental to his/her classmates because they don't learn when s/he doesn't feel like learning. And it's detrimental to me as a teacher because I am anxious before they arrive in class, wondering what havoc they may wreak today.

This was a really long post. In short, money doesn't solve problems. Parents and students, do your job right so we can do ours. Had this opportunity been given to my elementary school in 1999, I know that the results would have been different. Nearly all of the students would have pursued and completed college except for the ones who struggled through elementary school and didn't seem to have great home lives, even noticeable to me at the age of ten. Without the money, most of us would have taken loans to get through college, but we would have gone and our parents would have supported us. And that's what truly makes all the difference. And by the way, this post is titled as it is because I don't think PG County can be resurrected, not the way that things are currently going, anyway.