"Not everything that counts can be counted,
and not everything that can be counted counts."
- Albert Einstein
I have to admit, I like teaching at Seeliger, one of Carson City's so-called "good schools." Nonetheless, just like all 10 schools in town, we are being watched by the NCLB (No Child Left Behind) police. Being a "good school" means families with children want to move into our neighborhood. It also means that parents from Empire were able to choose to have their children bused - at district expense - from Empire to Seeliger every day.
This year teaching at Seeliger means that kindergarten classes are 25 percent larger than last year. Instead of 88 kindergartners enrolled, there are 110. We've had to find more little chairs, more little slates, more room to put backpacks. Needless to say, our classrooms are not 25 percent larger. They did add 10 more minutes to my teaching day; that's something.
But it makes me wonder, what exactly makes a "good school?" What are the real differences between Seeliger and Empire? With those questions in mind, I went to the Nevada Department of Education's new accountability Web site, http://www.nevadareportcard.com. You can compare any Nevada school with any other on a variety of factors. For example, I compared Seeliger and Empire on their two major ethnic groups, white and Hispanic.
Seeliger White 71.5% Hispanic 18.8%
Empire White 26.4% Hispanic 70.0%
Many of those Hispanic children are also English Language Learners and logic would suggest they wouldn't be able to pass tests at the same rate as native English speakers. However, their scores count toward a school's adequate yearly progress (AYP).
Other factors that affect academic achievement are attendance and transiency rate. Again, just compare the two schools.
Seeliger Attendance 93.6% Transiency 18.4%
Empire Attendance 95.6% Transiency 28.0%
Empire actually does a little better at getting its kids to show up at school every day than Seeliger does. Trouble is that it's not the same kids at the beginning of the year as at the end. At Empire nearly one-third of the students in any given class are there for only part of the year. As a teacher, I know it is hard to keep moving forward when I have to keep going back over procedures and material I'd already covered.
Although I can't expect a new child to be on the same page as the rest of my class, he or she is held to the same standard as those who have been there all year.
When I looked at the percentage of students meeting or exceeding standards in Reading and Writing, frankly I was a little embarrassed.
Seeliger Reading 53% Writing 50%
Empire Reading 32% Writing 42%
If we try to use the second-language issue to explain the difference in our scores, Seeliger should be passing closer to 70% of its kids. Empire passes more than just its white students. A number of its Hispanic children are also meeting or exceeding standards. I'd consider that evidence of a good school.
Here is another area of profound difference between Seeliger and Empire. Compare the percentage of children eligible for free lunch.
Seeliger Free Lunch 28.4%
Empire Free Lunch 69.1%
Economic status determines access to health care, adequate nutrition and a permanent home. Children, who can't trust that they have a place to stay every night or food to eat, likely won't trust that triangles always have three sides or that b says "b."
Even by outspending Seeliger by nearly $2,000 per child per year, Empire hasn't been able to get out of the NCLB doghouse. Gee, maybe poverty carries with it factors that take more than a good teacher, a free lunch and tutoring to overcome. As I've said before, education initiatives like NCLB that fail to recognize the social issues of poverty, affordable housing, family structure, parenting, daycare, jobs and health care are incomplete and unrealistic.
Nonetheless, educators at every Carson City school will continue to teach every child that comes through our doors. We'll show up to work in spite of our NCLB designations and the public shame dished out by a bad law determined to undermine that most democratic of institutions, America's public schools.
It's what we do; it's who we are. We do it because as teachers we possess characteristics that don't show up on an accountability report. Courage. Optimism. Loyalty. Perseverance. Resourcefulness. Professionalism. Heart. And that's what makes a good school, no matter what the numbers say.
n Lorie Schaefer teaches at Seeliger, where the kindergarten playground was so neglected by the Carson City School District this summer that parents held a work party on Labor Day weekend to pull weeds. She is grateful for good parents.