Roy Exum: Schools Evidence Mounts

Thursday, October 3, 2019 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

For the past several years there have been a handful of teachers whose wisdom I have savored, nearly always exchanging a flurry of emails when education issues come forth. Two of the letters I am going to share today that heighten concerns for our public schools come not only from readers but from those whose Internet friendships I consider as blessings as well. Both are seasoned veterans of the classroom and the author of the first email has told me numerous times that the one thing those students who create such unruly pandemonium have in common is that they are scared. That’s right, the misbegotten live in constant fear, this borne from a wide range of unimaginable experiences at far too young an age, and the reason they ‘act out’ is because havoc and mistrust is all they know.

The second letter also has experience as its cornerstone. This writer has also mastered a first and full other career, rich in lessons learned before becoming a teacher, and has some views that were forged on two decidedly different anvils. I can see how education is an industry, with checks and balances as well as the fine art of learning applied by many master craftsmen. At a minimum it takes 12 years to produce a high school graduate. 

With the understanding that people whose predictions, observations, and queries that I have enjoyed in recent years most certainly have a greater countenance with me here are three more reasons it may be time to invoke a topsy-turvy of sorts renewal within the county’s Board of Education. Regardless, something must be done in the face of inexcusable behavior and the easily-found flaws within our public schools, as these three new views confirm:

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My work in the school served multiple roles. One of the key roles was that of the intermediary between teacher and principal; teacher and parent or teacher and juvenile/institutions.   Complicated role but one needed at all levels of K-12 instruction.  When that communication link breaks, all manner of hell is about to begin.

My students were all state-identified as conduct-disordered or emotionally disturbed. It is that conduct-disorderly population that presented the most challenges to all levels of the school. If there was a caring parent in the home, the better outcome for the student. If not, as so many cases revealed the home situation does not exist thus leaving the school to be parent, cop and educate.  All do not work in harmony.

A couple of times I felt that I was in the wrong line of work. For example: I was at an inner city school, Orchard Knob Elementary. The problem boy was out of control and throwing objects at other students in the classroom. I was in the building seeing another student/teacher. Announcement over the intercom for me to quickly go to...  (teacher needs assistance.)  When I got there the student looked at me as just another obstacle and continued doing whatever he felt like doing. 

I was able to grab him when his back was turned and attempted to put him in a restraint tying both his arms behind his back with my arms.  He turned immediately at me and bit me through my coat breaking the skin … the elementary school student raised his fist and hit me squarely between my eyes, knocking off and breaking my glasses.  I immediately put him on the floor and again pulled both his arms behind his back. Police were called and restrained he was taken to the police HQ.   His parents were called from the police department.

The next morning I was summoned to reappear at Orchard Knob Elementary ... Both mom and dad were in the principal’s office waiting for me. They both wanted my head, and for me to be arrested for restraining their son. Dad was intoxicated. The principal, a seasoned pro, cautioned the parents to listen to the classroom teacher as well as me. Roy, that is just one. There were many more.

Schools (should not be) in the business of parenting. But the issues are serious ones and the reports you shared, if only a few, present challenges to the schools that are unmet and cannot be met until and when the home situation -- the neighborhoods and the pathology of inner city poverty -- are addressed, and the challenges are met, nothing is going to change. The child who has someone (who cares) is less likely to be a discipline problem.

So many of these kids literally have nobody. Rarely were girls involved in the level of violence I saw with boys – the developmental stages of growth for boys presents challenges unique to boys and the macho image so many like to emulate.”

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Here is a scholar’s view of what has been overlooked:

There have been numerous letters in the Chattanoogan recently about serious problems in HCDE.  I would submit that there is a great deal of truth in all of them.  Most of them do not really get at what I perceive to be the most important problem.

Public education is no longer about an “education.” It is about an industrial process.  Yes, public education is an industry. Like most industries, it produces a “product.”  That product should be an “educated” person ready to embark on adulthood.  That is obviously not what is happening.  Public schools have become giant factories that produce, at best, a mediocre “product.”

 The student starts on the conveyor belt in kindergarten and moves inexorably to graduation.  Heaven help the teacher on the factory floor who points out that the product is not as advertised.  That’s for business, industry and higher education to sort out, post-graduation.  Public education must keep up the one number statistic that matters more than any: the almighty graduation rate.  Whether or not a high school “graduate” has any basic academic skills is irrelevant.  He/She is a graduate! 

Don’t question how schools can have a chronic absentee rate around 50 percent and a graduation rate of 86 percent.  Don’t question the fact that those graduates cannot read or write.  Don’t question the “miracle” of “credit recovery” that allows students with 20, 30, 40 days absent to earn a passing grade in a core class. Don’t question the fact that disruptive students are allowed to stay in the classroom and deprive other students of an education.  The process has to move on.

The “leaders” at Central Office have a vested (monetary) interest in keeping the process moving.  So do the people at the inappropriately named State Board of Education and the State Department of Education.  The textbook publishers, testing companies and the technology companies have a huge investment in the process and want to insure that the gears keep grinding.  These people are two and three and four removes from the factory floor.  They don’t really deal with the disruptive students.  Those students are an abstraction for them.  What they want is for that disruptive student to be counted as a graduate to keep the graduation rate up!  

Granted, there are schools that are doing better than others in terms of “education.”  Signal Mountain, which has the advantage of a very different socio-economic environment, is an example.  Most of the rest are smoke and mirrors.  HCDE’s Public Affairs Office sends out dozens of emails crowing about Level Five banners.  As one of the letters in the Chattanoogan stated, Level Five has nothing to do with academic achievement or graduation readiness.  It is another example of the Central Office stretching the truth to the breaking point.  Every Level Five Banner photo op with the “leadership” from Central Office is just like a page from “1984.”  And the teachers know that “Big Brother” is watching.

There is very little “leadership” in public education.  The Central Office administrators are managers and they are managing the process of keeping students moving towards graduation.  School administrators spend most of their time in meetings or managing the revolving door of “discipline.”  Teachers are easily replaced.  A substitute teacher with a pulse is all that is needed to keep the machine moving. 

The public should get on board with the reality that is public “education.”  Employers should already know what kind of “product” they are getting from public education and just deal with it. The process has to move on.  The graduation rates have to stay up.  Students don’t have to learn from their failures; they are given “credit recovery” and move on to graduate. The public should learn from the failures of public education and move on.

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This email is from a former elementary school teacher in the Hamilton County school district:

I am a former teacher with the HCDE. I have a Masters of Elementary Education (K-6), an endorsement for special education (K-12), and am highly qualified in both areas, as well as reading intervention. I worked for three years at Apison Elementary School (Level 5 Achievement School) under Principal Ron Hughes (Principal of the Year). I had such high hopes for my teaching career and such love for my students. I worked tirelessly putting in 60 hours Monday-Friday and the vast majority of my weekends and breaks. I literally spent thousands of dollars of my personal funds to give my students a comfortable environment as well as meet their educational needs. None of this surprised me. I was aware of the personal sacrifices I would have to make when I entered the profession.

 What took me by surprise was what I considered to be abusive behavior and attitudes by state lawmakers, local leaders, the school administration, parents, and students. I left teaching after five years. The majority of new teachers leave at exactly five years. I didn't think I would be among them, but the thought of teaching again literally makes me sick to my stomach. The teachers who stay only do so because they have so much invested and only have to go a few more years before they too can get out. I could literally write a book about teaching in public schools. I warn all future teachers to take a minor in business or communication so that they are able to find a way out when they need to. I was fortunate enough to make my way to the insurance industry and met many other former teachers there.

When I saw the news articles and television stories about the massive rise in testing and graduation numbers within HCDE, I told my mother that the gains being described are not possible, but are demanded. I can only imagine how stuck these teachers feel and I hope you will not release the names of any educators that reach out to you.

 Since we have decided that the quality of education rests on the production of statistics, none of this should come as a surprise. We have turned American public education into a factory farm for children. If you've ever seen a chicken house on a factory farm, then you know what I'm talking about. Literally thousands of children are crammed into ever bigger institutions. The stress is palpable. There is no sense of community, no morality, no peace, no consideration for the types of humans we are producing. No wonder schools have to practice active shooter lock downs. These children are dehumanized from preschool until adulthood and all we are concerned about is "how the numbers look."

I have a little girl of my own. She will be two years old soon. Apison Elementary is six minutes away from our home. Parents move to this community to get their children into the "Level 5 Achievement School" with the "Principal of the Year" in charge. I will gladly be paying half of my paycheck to a private school where I know my child is safe, loved, and where both her heart and her mind are actually educated.

Thank you for listening and for "pulling back the curtain" on HCDE.

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A special called meeting by the school board’s Discipline Committee will be held at the Hamilton County Department of Education on Monday, Oct. 14, in the Board’s meeting room. The committee is unable to meet next week because the schools will be on Fall Break.

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