Thursday, February 25, 2010

Teaching (or not) in Central Falls

He also told them a parable: “Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit? A disciple is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully qualified will be like the teacher. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Friend, let me take out the speck in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”
Luke 6:39-42

Jesus was a teacher.

I think about that when I think about the teachers in Central Falls. The teachers at the High School made the national news this week when they were fired by the Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Frances Gallo.

The High School has been classified as a failure and in many ways it’s hard to argue with that assessment. Less than 50% of the students graduate. As a group they are way behind grade level standards in every category.

On a CNN segment, both the reporter and the host pointed out more than once that most of the students lived in poverty, while the teachers were paid more than the national average. The implications were clear. The overpaid teachers were not helping the poor students.

It’s not easy being a teacher, especially in a place like Central Falls. If the students are failing, then the teachers must be at fault.

When the students in Barrington or East Greenwich, or Wellesley or Weston (MA), or some other affluent community do well on their standardized tests, we nod and tell ourselves that anyone could teach those kids. They are bright and motivated and their parents are always helping. But when the students in Hartford or Providence or Central Falls are failing, then it must be the teacher’s fault.

We are appalled when we see failing schools. And we should be. But there are no simple solutions. Teaching children is not like making widgets. In the widget factory you have to worry about all sorts of labor and logistical problems. But the widgets-in-process will show up every day. They won’t be hungry, or stressed by home situations. They won’t skip the assembly line or talk back or get sick. And they are completely predictable.

The complexity of schools is almost beyond description.

When I was in Manchester, at one of our clergy meetings a woman came and talked to us about the problem of kids wearing gang colors in the High School. Later, when I recounted the meeting to a friend who taught kindergarten, he laughed and said, “Our kids aren’t in gangs, but their parents are.” I confess that had never occurred to me and it put a whole new perspective on parent-teacher conferences.

I have only read the outline of Superintendent Gallo’s plan for “transforming” the High School. It seemed sensible enough, but I have a hard time believing it will really transform the High School.

The truth is that Dr. Gallo doesn’t know what to do. Not really. Not with any certainty. And Education Commissioner Dr. Deborah Gist doesn’t know, either.

They know some things that will help. They have ideas. But there is no simple prescription for success.

Jesus asked why we see so clearly the speck in the eye of a neighbor, but we cannot see the log that blocks our own vision. It’s always easier to blame other people. The administration blames the teachers and the teachers blame the administration.

It is, as Jesus said, like the blind leading the blind. And one of the few things we know with real certainty is that we have fallen into the ditch. There is more than enough blame to go around. But blaming won’t get us out of the ditch. We need to work together.

And while we are removing specks and logs, it might be a good time to remind ourselves that we ought to have broader vision. Those of us who live in other towns need to do more than wring our hands and point our fingers. This isn’t just a problem for Central Falls. This is an issue for the state and the nation. City boundaries and school district lines are arbitrary. Those kids are our kids. Their future is our future.

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