The Made-up ‘Secret Sect’ of Obtaining an Education

For the past four months I have been tutoring a student who is a junior in high school this year. This student needed help with making up a deficiency (public school district in N. Ca did not follow through on paperwork – there is no ‘deficiency’ and student passed CAHSEE with flying colors which was my first warning flag of things to come) in algebra and then geometry.  I also helped this student do the summer work assigned by teachers for AP U.S. History and Honors English. 

All this time I kept trying to sort out what was wrong with the picture – how did a typical student who is polite and mild mannered end up with math craziness.  The family is intact – there are two adult working parents. The mother dotes on the student and at the same time sets high expectations about the arc their life SHOULD take.  The parents are involved at school and still it seemed something was amiss.

When school started, I noticed a pattern…..this student had their schedule rearranged at least 10 times in three weeks – I would have to write out a play manual to be sure, but I believe it was closer to 12-15 moves.  The administrators, at one point, pulled the student into their office to suggest taking a ‘leadership’ class as it would look good applying to college when there was no science class available to fit into the students schedule. The parents were not contacted before this sleight of hand.  When I found out the student was sold a bill of goods and, in effect, the school was calling the student stupid/less worthy, I talked with the parents about how to circumnavigate the problem and advocate for their child, which they did immediately.  Ultimately, after multiple parent contacts with administrators and teachers, I believe the schedule is resolved for now. 

The horrible part is this student now needs to catch up on three weeks worth of work in two classes from the beginning of school as they settle in for the year.  Sadly, this story plays itself out everywhere and I know for a fact this happens in Alameda (student is not in Alameda) where I live as I had to deal with it as a middle school teacher in Alameda. It amazed me how schedules (recently and in the past) could be done in ways which lacked any wisdom for the student(s) at hand.  I have seen students placed in classes which were not ‘full’ as that is what is available, not the class which was appropriate to advance the students education, so the current situation is in no way new, just different.  I had hoped one of the education reforms to happen over the last five years would be making it mandatory that schools have schedules in place.

The parents of this student invited me to Back to School Night so I could meet the teachers. I felt honored as this gesture made me, in effect,  a family member and an active participant in this student’s future.  I was even introduced as the tutor.  The evening gave me a real sense of what to do to help this student.

After Back to School Night, we all went out for a snack. It was then that I was able to confirm some of what I felt at the school – it is being ‘run’  by a particular group of parents with a particular agenda (which need not be mentioned as you can pick the obvious ones). 

 One of the questions the mother had for me is to explain what MLA and APA is since the English Teacher mentioned students would do a couple papers in this format.  I explained the MLA and APA are style guides which stipulate the exact way for citing quotes and doing footnotes.  I explained how there are various different style guides and the two they were told about are the most prominent although there is also The Chicago Manual of Style and so on.  At that moment it clicked – the school was being run by people who assumed EVERYONE had equal access to such things as a formal education. The school catered to the upper ends of the student body.

Imagine how the student I tutor felt being at Back to School Night and not knowing what was being explained, much less possibly being embarrased to ask a classmate or the teacher.  Imagine how the parent(s) felt.  Who would the parents ask without being embarrased?   All the teacher had to do was state students would be using The Modern Language Association or American Psychological Association style guides.

Those who are learned sometimes seem to create an artificial secret society around how education works – whether it is intentional or an oversight, it is all too common and it dramatically affects a number of students and their families.  Whether it is understanding a style guide or figuring out the best way to apply for college or what requirements are best suited to apply for college (extra year of science or math vs. leadership), the most important service is to stop making higher education some sort of experience that feels or is literally out of reach by the vocabulary we use and the way we speak to families of students at school or they way we treat students.

The students whose parents ‘run’ the school are not the ones who are affected by all the mismanagement noted above as the parents would not tolerate it – nor would they allow their child to be ‘talked into’ a different class.  It should be unacceptable for any student and their family.  When teachers and administrators work in a manner to assist students and parents, the rising tide will lift all boats – until then, only the super tankers seem to gleen the benefit.