A recent NYT article revealed a major reason why so much of the debate over public education in this country is so utterly divorced from the realities of the classroom.
In urban school districts, typically 30-50% of the school population changes schools per year. In economically-devastated cities such as Flint, Michigan, the percentage is closer to 75%. That's right--teachers in Flint see only one out of four of the same students from one year to the next. One Flint school had 300 of its 500 students switch in a single year.
The effects on students who change schools are clear: trouble assimilating with a new set of peers, trouble with starting curriculum midway, trouble with not being at grade level and having unfamiliar problems in an unfamiliar setting thrust upon them.
The effects on the classroom from such a high turnover are also clear: teacher time sapped to help new students catch up, experience working with individual students and gaining their trust wiped away, instability of the classroom group.
These problems are largely economic; Flint, Michigan, for example, was so annihilated by GM plant closings that it might simply be better for parents to relocate out of an area that does not have nearly the jobs to support its current population.
However, a large part of the problem is the way students are assigned to schools. In the current system, what matters most for school assignment is the location of the parent's home. The student is treated as a population statistic rather than as a learner.
The structure of this system guarantees failure, for it mandates that poor students attend schools with other poor peers, while wealthier kids segregate into schools with wealthier peers. Any attempt to integrate schools in terms of economics will meet with howls of resistance from parents in gated communities, decrying that their children shouldn't have to mingle with "undesirables." Any attempt to assign students in a stable way to schools or teachers who best meet their individual needs will elicit cries of student tracking.
The 4th season of The Wire followed a group of students/drug hoppers and a new teacher through a year of their trials and tribulations on and off the mean corners of Baltimore. The Wire--perhaps one of the greatest television series ever--made clear just how unrealistic the goals of No Child Left Behind are when confronted by the crucible of the streets. By the end of the season, and the school year, viewers felt like they had followed these students through a war. The reality is, though, that within that year most of the students would have switched schools.
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