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Week 26-27: exactly a year later, I’m still baffled

March 22, 2012

I sit here in the English class that I serve in while they take their third periodic assessment test, a test that is scored on a Los Angeles Unified School District. My students are gazing off into space, some diligently working and others struggling to write. I make eye-contact with one of the troublemakers of the class. He shows me his well-written five paragraph essay. I smile and give him a thumbs-up. This kid is very smart when he applies himself. I wish he applied himself all the time, but as a child of the projects and someone I’ve heard call his school a “prison” countless times, his environment doesn’t reinforce his intelligence.

All the scores from this test will be recorded downtown at 333 South Beaudry, the infamous address of Los Angeles Unified School District headquarters.

I sit here holding back tears, not only because I’m worn out, but because I’m starting to lose hope.

My English teacher explains the test questions to students who ask her for help. She’s an amazing (and every other synonym for amazing) teacher. She’s taught here for nearly 15 years because she knows where’s she’s needed in Los Angeles. However, being an unforgettable teacher can’t solve every problem. As much as we hate to admit it, money goes hand-in-hand with a quality education.

I just got a glimpse of the proposed budget for next year at Markham Middle School. Our Title I funding, which is extra federal funding a school receives based on how many students are “economically disadvantaged,” has been cut drastically for next year. And to top that off, the school lost thousands of dollars due to absences. During the common assessment test, one student sits at his desk with barely anything on his paper; he has been absent for nearly three weeks because he “couldn’t wake up in time for school.”

What will happen next year if my teacher can’t make copies for her students? What if she doesn’t have the classroom materials she needs to foster a challenging learning environment for her students?

Still, she knows where her skills are needed: here at Markham in Watts. She’ll make it work, somehow, someway.

This month, according to a Los Angeles Times article, LAUSD sent about 11,700 layoff notices to teachers and other staff. The district has laid off more than 8,000 employees over the last four years but eventually hired many back.

Likewise, since 2007-08, the number of full-time teachers has declined by 32,000, or 11 percent, in California.

Luckily, City Year wasn’t affected by any of these budget cuts at Markham because the money the school has to pay for us to be there falls under a federal school improvement grant. This is amazing news that my team recently heard not only because our students will have a City Year next year, but also because City Year returning to Markham is not at the expense of any staff positions that will probably be laid off next year (I’m talking staff positions people have held for 30 or more years at Markham).

If Markham wants to generate more federal funding, students need to bring up their standardized test scores. The higher API score (Academic Performance Index) a school has, the more funding it will receive based on the No Child Left Behind Act. There’s no doubt that the school and my team have been frantically trying to prepare students for the California Standardized Test (CST) they’ll take in mid-May.

The common assessment test my students were taking on March 22nd is based on 6th grade English California state standards. How my students score on this test is likely how they’ll score on the real CST.

Students have merely become scores — far below basic, below basic, basic, proficient and advanced — leading up to this test. “Make your mark at Markham!” is the school’s advertising campaign to push students to jump a performance level.

I face a challenging reality because I do not believe in standardized tests and feel guilty that I’m robbing students of an interesting education and instead just teaching to a test (and hey, only seven percent of teachers believe in standardized testing!)

But, I have to get over that and get over it quickly because public eduction policy isn’t changing anytime soon. I have to reassure myself and my students that the CST still makes sense. I justify any CST prep by telling my students that the more funding the school gets, the more sports equipment they’ll get and fun activities they’ll get to do, including more elective classes.

I remember taking these standardized tests from elementary school to high school when I was a California public school student. I dreaded it. I questioned how it measured my intelligence. I complained every year that it gave me no room to express my creativity.

Part of my hatred toward this test when I was a student is that I never scored well on it. I was like my students – “below basic or basic.” I even bombed the SATs in high school (1510 out of 2400) and probably had one of the lowest scores in my college graduating class. However, I still made it to USC – a top university – and graduated with honors (however, the road to get there was much more challenging than it was for others who performed well on the SAT). I believe I am living proof that these tests don’t mean much.

I recently finished reading book called “That Used to Be Us” by Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum about America’s decline. The authors identify public education as an economic issue rather than a social issue.

Because of the merger of the IT revolution and globalization, raising math, science, reading and creativity levels in American schools is the key determinant of economic growth, and economic growth is key to national power and influence as well as an individual well-being. -Friedman and Mandelbaum

Likewise, the authors call for American students to play with their creativity to find new ways to do routine jobs or expand technology.

An excerpt from the book

Another fascinating article I’ve read recently by Thomas Friedman is “Pass the Books. Hold the Oil” in the New York Times. Friedman discussed the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s latest study that maps the correlation between a country’s natural resources GDP and scores from the Program for International Student Exam (PISA), which is a worldwide exam that tests reading, math and science.

In short, how well do your high school kids do on math compared with how much oil you pump or how many diamonds you dig?-Friedman

Students in countries with minimal natural resources like Singapore and Japan scored higher, as opposed to counties like Kazakhstan and the US that have plenty of natural resources.

Countries that value education teach their students to be creative, which correlates to the country’s economic growth because people in these countries are finding new and interesting things to do for work and to make money unlike countries that export natural resources to make money. In a way, it’s kind of like a game of survival of the fittest. What countries are more fit to think creatively and take advantage of having an educated population? Definitely not America because education is seen as a social issue and not an economic issue here. Other countries understand that they have to focus on the masses instead of resources.

Point blank, I agree with Thomas Friedman that education is an economic issue and will determine America’s place in the world sooner than later. How do lawmakers not see this? Why aren’t we investing more in education? WHY are we teaching kids how to take a standardized test instead of making school creative and fun? I made it without doing well on those tests, can’t we find another way to educate students and fund public education? If we keep ignoring it, not only will other countries become more innovative, but it’ll also affect our national security (whoah there, right? Who’s going to make our military weapons? Military power is tied to economic power, and so the reasons go on. See, education really does affect everything).

To me, Markham is just a snapshot of every other LAUSD school and other schools in low income areas throughout the country. The issues schools like Markham face with funding and layoffs is surreal, especially because education is valued so much more in other countries.

April 2, 2011

Exactly a year ago, I was a USC Annenberg student journalist working on an investigative story about some of the schools City Year works in – including Markham – and didn’t get why it should even be a story because it was so intense and in my own words “messed up.”

April 2, 2012

Exactly a year later, I STILL don’t get it. But now it’s a little different. I’m no longer the removed journalist secretly rallying for social justice (yeah, the stereotypes are true. Most of us are opinionated and liberal, duh). Now I see them struggles of the public education system on a daily basis and people who are close to me are directly affected by it. Now I personally know sixth grade students who the public education system has failed to raise.

I don’t think I’ll ever get why education isn’t a priority here in America. I hope it is in whatever country I end up serving and teaching in with the Peace Corps. After this year of AmeriCorps service, I vow to bring back with me whatever I learn from teaching in a foreign country to the US to do something about the public education crisis. I mean, hey, a psychic once told me I’d live abroad for a couple of years (which is happening!) and that my career would be something “creative” that I will come up with to help others. That sounds about right.

March has been by far the hardest month of service and as the end gets closer it’s going to get harder. Although this year of service is almost over, I need to look at it positively: it’s not the end; it’s only the beginning.

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