School gets scant attention out in the jungle

By David Curtis

As a teacher in the public school system I have often heard teachers express their frustrations by using the famous middle school axiom, “How do they expect us to train a wild animal if each night we send it back to the jungle?”

The president’s No Child Left Behind legislation is back in the news (see Sept. 12-18 issue of the SMN) now that the 2001 act is up for re-authorization by a Democratic-controlled Congress. I’m curious to see what, if any, changes are made.

Since the creation of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) by President Bush in his first term, it has been a lightning rod of criticism from school administrations, teachers and national and state education associations.

The major complaints that surround the legislation are first, the unrealistic expectations of the bill — by 2014 100 percent of students will read and do math at grade level. Which on the surface is an admirable goal, but under the complications of real world education, diversity of student learning and lack of positive parental support, this is a goal that can never be met.

The second complaint centers primarily around the dollars and cents it takes to meet the expected outcomes of the mandated education bill. Put simply, NCLB was never fully funded by the federal government. Where would the millions of dollars that were needed to fund this legislation come from? That is the question that still, six years after the implementation of the bill, eludes school administrators and local funding sources.

The president did attempt each year to provide funding for parts of NCLB by zeroing out the entire budget for vocational education and transferring those funds to NCLB. Wisely, each year when the president attempted this “robbing of Peter,” the Congress stepped in and stopped this foolishness. Yes, I am a vocational teacher, just so you know where my loyalties lay.

You would think that the president would see the value in a well-educated and highly trained work force, globally competitive American businesses that utilize cutting edge technologies and classes that teach career defining skills to students who choose to enter the workforce and not go on to a four-year university. From someone who likes to spend considerable time working at his ranch, you would think he would be a staunch supporter of vocational education.

However, much as I would like this column to be about the benefits of vocational education I need to instead get back to addressing the student’s home life — the jungle of public education. As someone who can speak from inside the education system, one of the biggest flaws of the NCLB legislation is that it does not fully address the importance of the parent’s role in the educational success — or survival — of their son or daughter.

We had open house at our middle school a week ago and the parents of students that need help or parents that you wish you could talk to are typically the parents that never bother to show up. You could conference with them about their child’s behavior or grades at the football game on Friday night, though, because they always seem to make it to that school function.

I recall several years ago when a sixth-grader was having trouble in school with grades and behavior, the student’s teacher was sending home information in the student’s agenda book. The way this works is the teacher can have daily communication with the parent by sending home updates on how the student is doing in class. The parent reads the teacher’s comments, responds if needed, and then signs the agenda book for the student to return the next day.

The teacher of this particular student noticed that the agenda book was coming back each morning unsigned, so after a few days of the same the teacher calls the student’s home and talks to the student’s mother. Her response was that she had 10 cats to feed and that she didn’t have time to check her son’s agenda book or look to see if he has been doing his homework.

Ask any teacher and they can describe to you a growing number of instances where parents have failed their children. Like the girl who made Rotary Student of the Month, and when it appeared in the newspaper it was overshadowed by her mother’s drug arrest, which was reported on the next page. Children who go home each night to abusive parents, children that are the primary caregivers to younger siblings, children that are struggling in school and not making the grade. How can NCLB help these children when they leave school each night?

So that’s the problem with NCLB, it never took into account that teachers can not 100 percent of the time take up the slack for parents that don’t care whether or not their child performs in school. It could be cats or drugs or exhausted single moms — without some kind of intervention in the child’s life outside of school, these children will always continue to struggle to make the grade.

(David Curtis teaches middle school in Haywood County. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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