Saturday, November 13, 2010

Massive Failure: Who is Responsible?

(Sorry, loyal readers, I have been forbidden from posting video of the bull butchery for fear of crazy animal rights groups boycotting our site. Instead you're getting another post about education)

I know that nearly all of our posts are about the triumphs and travails of running a home for at-risk children, so I probably should remind you - as I often have to remind myself - we're not actually here to run a children's home.

My most recent, and one of the most forceful, reminders of why I am here came a few days ago as I was going through a filing cabinet trying to figure out which files I could move into storage to make room for some new files (I know, life in Africa is so thrilling). One of the files I came across was full of school results from last school year for our kids (the school year here mirrors the calendar year). Of course I was intrigued, and of course I pulled the file out and began going through it.

The first exam result was for a very clever boy here, kind of the Sudanese Charlie Brown. His aggregate score was 205/400. There at the bottom were the headmaster's comments: "a very good boy. Recommend to promote to p.4 [the next grade]."

The next files were for two more of our boys, one who I know can't read, the other who can not only read but is also a math whiz and recently schooled me in Connect 4 (badly... 2 out of 3 matches... My head was spinning when he finished with me). They finished, respectively, 38th & 39th out of 202 students in their class, one with an aggregate score of 105/400 and the other with 99/400.

Both students failed. At that point I asked one of my colleagues - a former teacher - what the cutoff was for passing. "Fourty percent," he replied. "But if enough students don't reach it, they may drop it as low as twenty." I can only imagine the look on my face, because he took one look at it and said, "You're beginning to understand how terrible things are here." 

Now, if I assume that everyone above the boy who finished 38th passed (which I don't know, but what I'm about to say would hold true even if it wasn't the case), that would still mean that over 80% of a fourth grade class failed.

In the case of failure that stunning, no matter where that failure takes place - whether in a school in Africa or America, for instance - I don't think anyone involved can avoid some of the responsibility. Clearly there's a problem with the system, because even Superman wouldn't be able to effectively teach a classroom of 200; clearly there's a problem with the parents, because no parents should tolerate paying to send their child into a classroom of 200; clearly there's a problem with the teachers, because even in a classroom of 200 kids 160 of them shouldn't score below 25% on their year end exams; clearly there's a problem with the curriculum, because any curriculum that yields such dismal results isn't effective for the population to which it's addressed. Seriously, spread the responsibility around - let no one avoid taking some share of it and doing something to change it the next time around... With one notable exception: the kids themselves. They're in school because they are learning how to learn. If they fail at such an early juncture, then I don't accept that they're failing.

As parents, the directors of this home accepted responsibility for their part and did something: they sent the kids to a different school this year, one that caps class sizes at 65 (yes, still a little high, but progress in the right direction), and already the results are showing. In the second term, my math whiz/Connect 4 General scored a 76/100 on math alone - over 75% of his aggregate score for four subjects in his previous school. He confirmed for me that the new school is better, and the other kids have echoed him. The discipline in their new school is stricter - if students arrive after 8:30 they're sent home - and the teaching is better ("the teachers come every day, and they always have a lesson ready!" a group of boys reported to me). I'm pleased with the improvement.

And I'm still troubled. I'm troubled because I have kids who I see study for hours a day to pass their fifth and sixth grade examinations, only to return with aggregate scores under 100/400. The former school pissed me off because students who were capable weren't learning; the new school doesn't piss me off, it just has a glaring flaw in it that students who have been poorly served in the earlier grades have no opportunity for remediation. I don't want to tell my kids, "don't bother studying - you can't read, so you're going to fail. You may as well go kick around the football."

All of this brings me back to the fact that I'm not here to run a children's home. When we first arrived, I was ready to dive in to educating the children and teaching literacy - I even diligently performed literacy tests with all 60 kids and used the results to break them into small single-gender groups based on ability level. And then the reality of running a children's home slapped me in the face and reminded me, "I'm a gargantuan task that you have to make some progress on first. Let me give you some 80 and 90 hour work weeks so that you don't forget it."

Sarah and I began digging in to the operations of the home. We streamlined the financial system, we hired someone to work as a full time parent, and we rewrote job descriptions for some of the other administrators to better take advantage of their abilities. Last week, we left for the entire week... And nothing fell apart. We realized, "hey, we don't have to solve every problem that comes up. We can and should let our colleagues feel the weight of responsibility for some things, and then they'll contribute to solving problems too."

So now I have overhauled my weekly schedule to include a few blocks of time every week for teaching literacy. I know exactly what I want to do, exactly how I want to do it, I've designed the structure to accommodate it...and I'm terrified to start. It's a lot like the nervous fear that I felt as I stood outside my classroom before going in to teach my first lesson on my first day as a teacher, that fear of the inevitable and the unknown. That, mixed with the fear that as soon as I start this some crisis will arise in the home and I'll be pulled away, leaving my dream abandoned again. Nonetheless, this morning I gathered my resources together to put the finishing touches on my first few lesson plans. 

1 comment:

  1. Note to self: While in Nimule or its environs, don't drink the soda, esp. if there is a zebra nearby.