« Steve Case is Smart | Main | Salon's New Deal; Editing »

January 16, 2003

Busy Redux; Academic Emergency

I know, I haven't exactly been a world-class updater these last couple of weeks. My excuse is the same as it was last week around this time: I've been hella busy, and it's been the good "damn if my writing career isn't just totally coming around" sort of busy as opposed to the bad "holy crap, no matter how much plasma I sell I still won't make the mortgage" sort of busy. Since a couple of months ago it appeared as though I might have more of the latter than the former, I feel somewhat justified in attending to that stuff first, and the Whatever secondarily if at all. I've always said that one of the main aims of the Whatever is to keep my writing skill sharp for when actual pay copy rolls around, and well, guess what. It's here. And may I just say: Wheee!

The fact of the matter is that it looks like 2003 is going to busy enough (and what's more, busy enough because I'm writing books, dance, dance, jig, jig) that I really have to reconsider what I'm doing here. This is not to say that I want to stop writing on the site, since it's become abundantly clear that Scalzi.com is good for me and my writing career, and I'm loathe to desert it. As Molly Ivins is fond of saying, you dance with them what brung you, and recently, what brung me is this site. Also, basically, since I work from home and am hundreds of miles from my most of my friends, this is also, um, much of my social life. I know. I know. Don't remind me. All I'm missing is the slide rule.

The problem is that writing long-form bits here really is time consuming, so I've been considering (as I often have in the -- good lord -- four plus years I've been doing this) writing something more explicitly blog-like. I've somewhat stuffily maintained for a very long time that the Whatever isn't a blog (it was around long before the word gained common currency, for one thing), but these days enough bloggers write long-form think pieces (refer to Den Beste and others) that the distinction between what I do and what some of them do is non-existent, and anyway, writing shorter, punchier and link-ier has some appeal. It's easier to write a lot of short things than it is to write one long thing and so by necessity I may end up writing shorter (and paradoxically, more).

Of course, knowing me, I won't do it -- Long-time readers will familiar with this pattern of mine where I declare that I'll be writing less and/or writing shorter and then go off on a multi-week long-form writing spree. Also, of course, the whole point of calling this the "Whatever" is to remind myself it's not supposed to have any set format, and that I can put up whatever I want, whenever I want. So who knows. I'm just sharing where my mind's at at the moment. Because, you know, I can.

In any event, if my appearance here is sporadic over the next few months, you'll know why. Scribble, scribble, scribble. Okay, now I'm done.


The Bradford school district, which is the district in which Athena will attend school, is currently in an academic emergency. Ohio tests each district's students on 22 separate levels of proficiency (which actually breaks down to tests in 5 or 6 different areas in grades 4, 6, 9, and 10). Bradford's aggregate student scores marked the district for failure in all but six of these categories; only two other local districts are comparatively more awful, one of them being the school district of Dayton, where the district only got passing scores in 2 out of 22 of the tests. Which is pretty awful. But one doesn't want one's child attending a school district whose major claim to fame is that it's not quite as bad as the district in the nearest big city with a rotting industrial core.

Now, there are some factors here which are not immediately obvious. The first is that these test scores reflect the scores from last year, before the kids in town got schlepped over to the brand spanking new super-high tech school for which the residents in town (your truly included) pay some of the highest local taxes in the state. Having a new school won't make for an inherently better educational experience any more than buying a new car will suddenly make you a better driver. But one can hope that staff and students will take advantage of the new capabilities of the building.

Another thing is that the school district is so small (about six hundred students total) that the poor performance of even a single student makes a significant statistical difference on one of these tests. One really dumb kid in your 4th graders class can pull down the performance of the whole district by a few percent, and of course, generally speaking and alas, dumb kids usually travel in packs. This is why Dayton's situation is really quite a bit worse than Bradford's; six kids that were kicked in the head by their farm horse can somewhat artificially deflate Bradford's district performance, but to do as poorly as Dayton, you have to be endemically failing to sufficiently educate literally thousands of children. So maybe things are not really all that bad.

But now let's also factor in some other intangibles. A third significant data point here is that Bradford is defined as a "Group 6" school district in Ohio, which means it's a "Rural Poor District." Any fan of current American pedagogy will tell you that you being both "rural" and "poor" are two strikes against you right off; from an educational point of view, the only thing that's worse than being rural and poor is being inner-city and poor (refer once again to Dayton).

I can attest to both the rural nature of Bradford (longtime readers will recall that my eastern and southern neighbors are, in fact, cornfields) and a quick spin through the town gives ample opportunity to reflect on the "poor" portion of that equation as well (the median family income was $43,500 at the time of the 2000 census, compared to the national average of $50K). "Poor" means many things, but specifically for public education it means a small tax base which (despite the aforementioned high local taxes) means the district needs outside help from the state.

It's also the sort of place where one does not see a lot of adults walking around with college educations. In a town of 1,859 souls at the 2000 census, precisely 41 of them had a BA or higher. It's not that people here are stupid, mind you -- I've met enough of the locals to know better than that (also, Krissy is currently lacking her BA, and she's one of the smartest humans I've ever met. Call her stupid and she'll both outthink you and kick your ass). But it's a blue-collar town smack dab in an agricultural economy. It's a "college optional" sort of place, and the kids who do head off for college from here are doubtful to return. The educational dynamics here are going to be different from those of a community in which a larger percentage of the adult population is college-educated and is reaping the economic benefits of that education.

Whatever the causes and rationalizations, and even factoring in the fact that I'm not one of those people that a school's purpose is to educate children to take multiple choice state assessment tests, an Academic Emergency is still a no damn good situation for Bradford to be in. Even if one bad test performance can create a real percentage dip for the schools, the fact is one single child won't actually put the schools in trouble -- a lot of the kids have to be not making the grade. That's a problem.

And it's my problem, since Athena's four, and she'll be heading into Bradford school's real soon now. On one level, I'm not too terribly worried, since no matter what, Athena has parents who value education and we'll be compensating for any lack in the schools. But on the other hand, and more fundamentally, I shouldn't have to be compensating for gaps in her education. Parents need to be active and engaged with their child's education. But unless Athena's teachers want to come over and do some of my work for free, I don't think it's unreasonable to ask them to cover the basics for my kid.

I don't think the solution is to bail out of the Bradford schools. I don't want to send her to private school (all of which around here are religious -- thank you, no) or attempt to homeschool, which would be successful to the extent that I think we could give her a reasonable academic education, but then there'd be the whole issue of not becoming socially adapted; I'm sorry, but every time I see one of those homeschoolers win a national spelling bee or some such thing, they all look like they've been kept in a jar since they were infants -- they look queer, in the old, non-sexualized sense of the term. No, we're going to stay in town. I paid for that school (several thousand dollars, if it, anyway); my daughter is going to use it.

Anyway, if one student can drag down an entire school district's scores, then it's reasonable to assume that one set of parents can help to yank them back up. I don't know if Bradford's educational staff will ultimately appreciate or hate us, but in the end I'm not particularly interested in their feelings. My daughter will show up to be educated, and by God, that's what's going to happen. That's not an academic emergency. It's an academic imperative.

Posted by john at January 16, 2003 06:05 PM


Post a comment.

Comments are moderated to stop spam; if your comment goes into moderation, it may take a couple of hours to be released. Please read this for my comment moderation policies.
Preview will not show paragraph breaks. Trust me, they're there.
The proprietor generally responds to commenters in kind. If you're polite, he'll be polite. If you're a jackass, he'll be a jackass. If you are ignorant, he may correct you.
When in doubt, read the comment thread rules.

Remember Me?

(you may use HTML tags for style)