Spring fever or another malady?

Spring Fever or Another Malady? 

A View of (Some of) Arkansas Public Education

When I left Delaware’s declining education arena to go to college in Arkansas, I don’t think I had any idea that my new state-for-a-few-years had a low public-education reputation.[1]  I’ve since heard the tongue-in-cheek remark that Arkansas is grateful for Mississippi, or else Arkansas would be last on the list.

Having been in eight (mostly small-town) AR public schools this year, I have witnessed some questionable “education” first-hand.  To be sure, there are good things going on, as in the school with which I’m best acquainted.  Yet one can often determine something about a school by its physical condition and by the atmosphere in the hallways during class-change times, and things are not all good.  I have observed way too many times that way too many students regularly have way too little (or nothing) to do.  Now, I “get” senioritis and spring fever, but the decreased learning activity and behavior standards seemed to hit hard in several schools, virally spreading as far down as 6th or 7th grade, including the teachers.  And it started long before spring.

The situation actually reads to me as though what I’m seeing is normal.

“What are you studying?”

“We work on projects.”  (Or “Oh, we don’t really do anything in this class.”)

“Well, why aren’t you working on them now?”

“I finished mine a month ago, and Mr. X lets me go to Ms. Y’s room to hang out.”

At least 3/4 of the time, I think I can tell when I’m being snowed.  These AR students are typically straight-shooters; I’ve really not picked up any lying by anyone in any school.  Suspicious by nature, I’ve even checked up on a student or two who asked to go to the restroom, thinking someone might have worked out a signal to meet up with someone else to skip the next class, or they might be heading to the field to smoke, but in every case, a student acted as promised.  Overall, I think I’ve been getting a pretty clear picture of the status quo in these schools.

But enough about hall passes.   (This is obviously anecdotal, but it’s based on several schools.)  There are many “student aides” playing on their phones.  Sometimes, multiple aides are in a single classroom during the same period.  (I suppose it’s better for them to be aides than to leave school to go work at Sonic or to be in a study hall, but I wish they were in classes more often.)  Students ask to leave class to go to so-and-so’s room or, like last Friday, “to do volleyball stuff” with her coach.  This last one looked at me as if I had two heads (not disrespectfully) when I responded in the negative because she was “in a class now.”

One “field trip” to a restaurant included two extra teachers who had no connection to the traveling class, rendering approximately nine classes (11:00-1:30) devoid of instruction for the day.  The leftover students who weren’t going to lunch went to the gym for a free-for-all; I gathered from discussion and observation that playing around in the gym during classes was not abnormal.

But enough about extracurricular, bogus field trips.  What about technology?  I’m not one who thinks technology is an end in itself; because I speak up when it seems to take the focus off education, I have more than once been considered a backward person.  Actually, I use electronic technologies every day and appreciate them very much.  I observed a student teacher using a Smart Board to great advantage and with considerable facility.  One school distributes full-sized laptops to every student, and some students seem to use them well.  Smart phones can be an educational tool, but about 95% of the time, they’re not being used as such.  Schools and teachers don’t have consistent (or consistently enforced) rules about phones.  Students eat Cheetos® and drink Mountain Dew® in classrooms, and this is normal.  Class rolls are rarely up to date.  We’re not talking about forgetting to delete the one kid who moved last week.  The problem is much more pervasive than that.  One wonders how any permanent school records are maintained.  One class roll for a 1st-period class had four names on it.  Seven students were present, only two of which matched names on the class roll.

But enough about administrative procedures.  This question may annoy certain die-hard fans while revealing my ostrich-ness:  is football actually a class in many other schools out there?  If so, why?  I have a general sense that Friday night high school football is a big thing in many towns throughout the Southeast and perhaps the Midwest and Heartland.  A town’s football machine will be eager for next year’s championship so it can put up a “Lion Pride” (see what I did there?) sign at the town entrance.  After all,

  • the mayor played on the team 25 years ago
  • the bank president was on the committee to get a new football coach
  • the pastor of the largest church in town is eager for two of his youth group kids to be co-captains of the team
  • the principal played and later coached, and the assistant principal is one of the coaches, which led into his being given the assistant principal job, etc.)

Maybe, just maybe, football and other sports are too important in the life of a school.

But enough about football.  Or not.  I have in my hands a school’s master teacher schedule that shows four full-time teachers scheduled for the same junior high football “class.”  There is also a 7th grade football class and a high school football class.  I learned that these classes are year-long “courses,” not 9-week electives.  Three or four coaches staff each class!  Leave alone the invalidity of having any class time for football at all:  couldn’t a single coach handle weightlifting and sprints for 8 or 10 junior high players at a time?  Now, if I cared about football, I could see offering a 9-week elective in football here & there, but these football classes are full-year “courses” with a couple handfuls of boys in each one for the whole year.  The boys said they lift weights and learn plays, depending on the season.  In my book, this is worse than using jazz band class for marching band by a long shot.  (I observed that misstep in Texas, where the marching band environment is exceptionally competitive.)

But enough about football and class time.  What about education—even the learning of simple facts?  I asked some of the junior high social studies students (who said they’d studied the states last fall) to name a state that borders Wyoming.  Someone asked, “Wyoming’s a river, right?”  Students guessed Washington, Oregon, Chicago, Indiana, Texas—and Arkanswksheetas, believe it or not—before someone finally said Montana.  I’m not even much of a history student, and I’ve forgotten or learned incorrectly more than I actually know, but I figured the 10th-graders should have known that WWII was in the 40s, not the 20s or 30s.[2]  A ten-question worksheet that consisted primarily in arithmetic was left as an assignment for all classes that ranged from 7th through 11th graders.  (I believe a focused 4th-grader could have completed this sheet in 20 minutes.) 

They have football classes, yet a 7th-grader doesn’t know that Chicago isn’t a state or that Wyoming isn’t a river.  Methinks football rigor may be exceeding academic rigor at this particular school.

Meanwhile, my first-grader was reading aloud a story that mentioned “Bayside School.”  He stumbled a little over “Bayside,” not noticing the capital letter, and asked me if that were the Arkansas way of saying “beside.”  (We don’t promote any kind of prejudice in our home, and we’re very happy that he has friends with different skin colors and ethnic backgrounds, but we do notice sounds and accents.)  Jedd has a good school situation[3] this year and a particularly revered principal with a servant heart, but we’re a trifle anxious about Jedd’s surroundings in terms of education.  We’ll see what happens.

[1] My parents had been educated here and are pretty bright!  I feel my own collegiate education was at least average, and I definitely had opportunities beyond the norm.

[2] To their credit, they did know more about the Dust Bowl era than I did at their age.

[3] Way too much paper is consumed—typically a dozen sheets come home every day, presumably having been used to keep the kids busy.

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