Friday, April 24, 2015

The underdogs just stay under, all the time.

What are underserved students, and why does the word “underserved” throw education-type folks into a tizzy?  Do we care?  Sure we do, because it’s letter U day in the A-Z blog challenge, and the entire time I’ve worked in education, I’ve only worked with underserved students. 

In eduspeak, “underserved” refers to students who aren’t adequately served by our public education system.  It may be because they live in poverty-stricken areas where property taxes aren’t enough to pay for adequate facilities and quality teachers.  It could be because they come from homes where education isn’t a priority because their families have other pressing needs, like putting food on the table.  Or it could be because the students have special needs and require more attention and resources than your average student.

The students I think are particularly underserved are ESL (English as a Second Language) students.  These students are trying to learn to speak, read and write the language as fast as they can, but they’re still penalized for not knowing it.  Most teachers know how to accommodate students who are English Language Learners, and they do their best, but these students still get screwed by the state. 

First of all, ESL students get no accommodations for the state tests, even in reading and writing.  It breaks my heart to read the essays they write for test prep lessons.  They’re trying their best to navigate the language, but the state won’t cut them any slack at all.  Essays on state tests are rated from 1-4, and no one wants a 1, but that’s what these kids will get.  Yes, it will bring down their overall test score and likely keep them from passing, but it’s important that the tests are “fair” to everyone. The only assistance they get is an English dictionary to help them, even though most of them can’t read it.  

The bilingual curriculum we have in Texas isn’t doing them any favors either.  A close friend of mine enrolled his son in school after he and his wife divorced.  His son had been living in Mexico.  So when Ed registered Victor, the school told Ed that Victor needed to be in bilingual classes.  Ed said it was disastrous.  Victor learned no English at all, and Ed had to fight to put Victor back in regular classes.  Bilingual classes are supposed to ease the students into speaking English, but the upshot is that someone just speaks Spanish to them all day.  It doesn’t help.  When students go to middle school or high school, they’re just as far behind and probably even less likely to want to learn English.  Secondary ESL teachers are battling to make them fluent.  By this time, many of them are resentful and are treated as though they are slow, so it’s not surprising they give up or begin to hate school.

I don’t think most teachers know what to do with ESL students.  English teachers are pretty creative in trying to come up with ways to check a student’s understanding, from quizzing him/her verbally to not penalizing for misspellings and grammar problems.  But I shudder to think how these same students fare in high-level math and science, which require pretty specialized vocabulary.  Who’s helping them there?

The sad thing is that the underserved populations remain underserved, and our methods of helping tend to hurt more than help.  Graduation rates may be stable or rising, but so are functional illiteracy rates.  That's a sobering thought on which to end your week.