What I learned this year in high school

Spending a year following ninth-graders changed the way I think about the role of schools in saving kids.

Published December 24, 2006

When plant and animal species begin disappearing from an ecosystem, worried scientists use a rivets-in-an-airplane analogy: Nobody really knows how many rivets must pop out before the whole thing crashes.

I thought about that metaphor a lot over the past 16 months, as photographer Lara Cerri and I followed four ninth-graders from Northeast High School in St. Petersburg. It's clear in our story, "Ninth or Never," which the Times published Dec. 10, that rivets are popping out all over the place. Single moms. Long-gone dads. Parents who have lost the instinct to teach, protect and love. A lot of kids are being raised in homes like this. A lot more will be.

But acknowledging the corrosive link between many homes and school doesn't let schools off the hook. In that respect, I was disappointed by the reaction of some readers. Okay, so many parents aren't what we'd like them to be. So then what? I think the worse it gets for kids at home, and the more these struggling kids become the norm, the more vital it becomes for schools to improve, now.

I didn't always think that. At the beginning of the reporting process, as I met one broken kid after another, I thought: Schools can't possibly fix all these kids - and isn't it ridiculous for some educrat to "punish" them when the kids fall short? But by the end of the school year, I had come 180 degrees. I now think that as unpopular as No Child Left Behind and other recent education initiatives may be - initiatives that essentially tell schools to find a way, or else - they're a good start. As I wrote in the story: "It may be unfair. It may be impossible. But as you meet some of these ninth-graders and their parents, ask yourself: What other option is there?"

I didn't use the word "accountability." It's a born loser in sound-bite battles and has become as tainted and toxic as the word "liberal." But it's hard to see how schools will ever become responsive enough and creative enough to reach kids like Ronnie, John and Quetta - three of the kids in "Ninth or Never" - if they (1) don't measure whether kids are learning and (2) don't hold someone's feet to the fire if the kids aren't.

Not long ago, kids like Ronnie, John and Quetta slipped through the cracks without a fuss. But because of recent laws, the system has to try harder to keep that from happening. Maybe things would have turned out differently for the three of them had they grown up in schools shaped by a mature accountability system, as opposed to one in its infancy. John is 17 and still doesn't know his multiplication tables. Granted, he's got issues: His mother left when he was 3 and his relationship with dad was so rocky a judge ordered him to live with grandma. But in 12 years, the system could not find a way to make sure John learned 3 x 7 = 21?

Maybe it could have kept John a few more hours every day or given him one-on-one tutoring. Maybe the only real solution was a boarding school, so John could get away from the chaos that seems to stalk him off campus. Sure, those things cost money. But accountability isn't incompatible with smaller classes, or better-paid teachers, or more programs. I think it will lead to those things, but in a way that's more targeted, more efficient, more urgent. We can find out what works, quicker, and start helping kids who need it, pronto.

Accountability has its flaws. But it's the foundation for change, not the whole house. And while the early evidence suggests it's not the perfect house, it's better than the one we live in now. Throughout the 1990s, elementary school students in Florida ranked near the bottom nationally in reading. But since 1998, their scores have risen dramatically, arguably more than those in any other state in the country. Those gains haven't pulsed up into middle and high schools yet, but to ignore them - to ignore the fact that thousands upon thousands of kids are reading better, many of them poor and minority kids - seems dishonest. So is denying that the pressure of accountability had something to do with it.

Trying to talk and write seriously about public schools is tough when so many myths fog public perception. One myth tells us schools know how to help struggling kids and if we just "invest" more money in schools, we'll help more kids. But with many kids, the sad truth is we don't know what works.

Even sadder, we don't know who works. How good is your kid's teacher? It's hard to know for sure. Sometimes our schools seem like the cars on that MTV show, Pimp My Ride, where beat-up rides get wild paint jobs and shiny rims but nobody works on the engine. Northeast High and other schools now provide an array of social services in an attempt to keep students whole enough to learn. But meanwhile, the system for hiring, firing and paying teachers hasn't changed much in decades. Under the hood of the modern school, there's still a Model T engine.

Shouldn't that change? One of the oft-cited studies that shows smaller class sizes make a little bit of difference in student achievement shows great teachers make a lot of difference, even with struggling kids. So why don't we have a system that measures how effective teachers are, so we can keep the good ones, attract more of them, and get rid of the rest? Teachers resist meaningful efforts to get to such a system. As the father of a toddler who'll be taking the FCAT in a few years, I find that annoying. As the reporter who tracked Ronnie, John and Quetta, I find it haunting.

At Northeast High, I watched one of Ronnie's teachers dim the lights, put on a "movie" about early mapmaking and look the other way as kids napped.

Then again, I saw awesome teachers, too. In Ronnie's reading class, kids served up one crack after another, cracks that might have earned them referrals in other classes. But this teacher volleyed like a pro. "Oooh, I'm going to punch you," she said playfully to a girl who interrupted one day. She smacked a fist against a palm, put her dukes up like a boxer.

The girl giggled, then piped down. This was the same girl who, in another class, laughed about the twin towers falling during the 9/11 attacks. It was amazing, watching the way this teacher earned kids' respect and, at the same time, maintained a rhythm that allowed her to teach.

Great teachers aren't a myth. But there needs to be more of them.

I didn't want to write this column. Education issues are complicated and challenging, and I'll be up front: I constantly learn new things about teachers and kids and parents that make me rethink old assumptions. At this point, I have no doubt that many teachers work hard, for little pay and little thanks, to do the job that aside from parenting is the hardest and most important one there is. I have no doubt that as individuals, many teachers give it their all in unbelievably trying circumstances.

But I owe it to Ronnie, John and Quetta, after they let me into their worlds for a year and showed me what bright, tough kids they are, to say this:

As a system, schools can do better.

And they have to.