Mesh of dysfunction in schools

Jason was tall, thin, with doe-soft eyes and a long jaw, and from the start of the year he seemed unusually interested in the subject I teach, which is French. He was attentive in my classes, and cooperative. He often arrived a minute or two before the other students for a quick chat. Other teachers, to my surprise, spoke of him as troublesome, but I never saw that side of him. He was said to live in poverty, food insecure, with his grandparents.

Sometime in February I noticed that Jason had been absent three consecutive Mondays, and I checked in with the office. I was told he had been sick but was recovering. From the tone of the staff I understood that something unusual was going on but that they were monitoring the situation and I should not press for more information. I assumed that he would return before long.

At this point I should explain that I am one of the many teachers in Maine K – 8 schools who teach subjects known as ‘specials’ or ‘allied arts’ and who have caseloads of three to five hundred students apiece, often spread between two, three, or even four buildings. Our situation keeps us at arm’s length from our students. Many of us see students just once a week as a result of budget cuts and because of logistical complications we often are not privy to information about students others may hold. Most of us ‘specials’ teachers, passionate about the importance of our subject area for the education of children – be it physical education, the arts, languages, technical education – strive against the odds of limited time to have some impact on the lives of the students we brush up against for a few hours each year, but we are generally frustrated by the constraints imposed by being assigned so overwhelming a caseload.

The student I speak of never did return. I never saw him again. I think he is all right – I have been told he is. I checked in with the office again after another month had gone by and was told matter-of-factly that he had moved to another school district in northern Maine. No one apparently thought I needed to know this information. In fact, while asking about this boy, I also inquired about another, who also had been missing for weeks. I was told that he also had moved. No explanation, either of why he had suddenly moved, or why I had not been informed. No recognition that perhaps communication needed to be tightened up.

To put this in perspective, in high poverty schools students moving during the school year is not unusual. Relationships and finances dissolve; students move away to live with relatives; someone gets sick; parents lose jobs. The hope is that at least everyone has a roof over her head. Teachers in these schools keep supplies ready for new students we know will appear without notice at seemingly random times during the year – this year I met a new student on the Thursday morning before the winter holiday, for example; another a month before the end of the school year. Sometimes a student arrives mid-year only to move on again a few weeks later.

Clearly the families of such students are not living a lifestyle where decisions revolve around the academic needs of their children. More elemental needs are driving these families.

I recount the story of Jason at some length in an effort to describe the mesh of dysfunction that characterizes some schools. The dysfunction involves finances, and it involves management, and it also involves a broken social system. The result is schools that do not come close to meeting the needs of all students.

Headlines in Maine this spring indicate that once again we are having trouble pretty much state-wide paying for the education of our K – 12 public school students. Neither the federal nor the state government is meeting school funding obligations they assumed, and therefore local towns are left footing most of the education bill. Some towns have an easier time than others affording this. For many poorer towns the failure of government to uphold its responsibility usually results in cuts in necessary programming and staffing in schools, as is the case where I work.

If the schools were properly funded I would not work in three different schools and have a caseload that makes it a challenge to know everyone’s name, let alone their learning needs. I would work in one school, see students frequently enough to teach them my subject area, and be a stable part of a staff. I would know when one of my students was in trouble. I feel sad that I did not know what was going on with Jason. At the very least I would have liked to send him a good-luck card in French. If I had had the chance to know him better from the beginning of the year, who knows – maybe I would have been able to help on a deeper level.

If the schools were properly funded, presumably they would also be more carefully managed. As things stand, each person in a school office is doing the work of two. Everyone from the principal through the nurse and administrative assistant is stretched so thin it’s a wonder the string holding them together doesn’t snap. The federal and state governments are short-changing us financially and they are also the forces behind management dysfunction in the schools. Their edicts on educational policy and direction add new layers constantly to the workload of the schools, yet they provide no assistance in bearing some of that load. They simply pile it on school administrators and staff, who try their best to cope, but who basically cannot possibly keep up with it all.

Schools are the foundation of our democracy. Our current funding mechanisms do not appropriately support schools. Our current governments do not appropriately support schools. As a result no one working in schools has the time to carefully consider what needs to be done for individual students so they will learn. This is why we don’t get the positive results we crave on measures of achievement.

We don’t get the results because we don’t put in the time where it matters, in curriculum development and attention to individual students. We don’t put in the time because we don’t have the funding to do so and because our leaders are in a constant state of chaotic upset due to the unreasonable loads they are asked to carry. We don’t have the funding we need because our culture no longer recognizes education as a foundation stone of democracy.

Our nation and state need to wake up. A number of countries the size of our states have turned their education systems around in a matter of decades: Finland, Poland, Canada. We can do that too, but it won’t happen if we continue to allow ourselves to be derailed by mindless educational reform efforts and cheated on a financial level by the government. We need to identify the sources of our problem, make a bullet list of ‘to-do’ items, and get to work. There is no way the great state of Maine, and the United States of America, are unable to produce world-class educational systems. We have to want them though.



Kathreen Harrison

About Kathreen Harrison

Kathreen Harrison is a public school teacher in Maine. She has a master’s degree from Bank Street College of Education and a bachelor’s degree from Harvard College. She has worked in a variety of schools in New York and Maine in a number of capacities – French teacher, gifted and talented teacher, elementary school teacher, and curriculum coordinator for island schools. She has lived in Maine for 20 years and has a particular interest in school reform.