To anyone who has been involved in public education in an urban setting for the past decade or two, today’s front-page story in the Globe reporting that students who frequently switch schools tend to do poorly in school is not exactly a revelation. I remember sitting in a school site council meeting at the Daley School at least eight years ago and having then Superintendent Karla Brooks Baehr tell us that 25% of the children who begin school in Lowell in September move out of the district by June. I found that number beyond belief, so when I got home I asked my son – then a sixth grader – how many students were in his class. He answered 24. I then asked how many had left since September (our conversation was in May). He rattled off six names – exactly 25% of his class. I became a believer.
Principals and teachers will tell you that if they could separate out the kids that they keep for their school’s full complement of grades (i.e., in a middle school, a student who arrives for fifth grade and stays until the end of eighth grade), those students’ test scores would be pretty good. But because of the constant influx of new students into the school – not from other schools within Lowell, but from other communities and countries – the student body is a moving target which is reflected in the poor scores.
Too often, the harshest critics of the public schools draw upon their own experience when they render their judgments and ignore the reality of today. In my eight years at St Margaret School in the 1960s, I don’t think we had six new students in the entire eight years, never mind in a single year. And all of the students in the class came from households with two parents, usually with one working and the other at home to care for the kids. The families of the student body were not wealthy, but everyone had a quiet place to do homework, a warm place to sleep and plenty of food on the table. But that’s not life today in an urban community. Kids arrive at school with all of society’s problems as baggage, but society expects the schools to overcome all of those problems and educate the kids. There’s certainly room for improvement in the public schools, but until we start addressing the problems that plague the kids outside the classroom, we’re not being serious about improving urban education.