Friday, March 01, 2013

Do Florida Schools Still Suck?

a guest post by
Michael Mercurio

When I think back to when I was first enrolled in the Orange County public education system, it elicits fond memories. I was in the fifth grade when my family and I moved to Florida from New England. I remember being delighted by how much easier it was to make an “A” in each subject. I was also pleasantly surprised to discover that I no longer had to wait an entire grade to proceed to the next level of education. Instead of six grades to sit through, I was suddenly faced with a mere three months before graduating to “middle” school. My adventures continued through high school, up until my graduation with honors in 2001. Having skipped the majority of my senior year, how I even graduated at all remains a mystery to me to this day.

When I speak of fond memories, a few notable experiences stick out in the forefront of my mind. There was the kindly, Indian, permanent substitute instructor from my middle school math class. The poor fellow, as knowledgeable as he was, simply could not be heard over the rest of the classroom. He would have had a difficult enough time, had he actually been able to speak more than a few broken English sentences. The classroom was always pure, unadulterated chaos. I would watch him as he nervously stuttered and pointed to figures on the blackboard – which three years later I discovered was called “algebra” – trying his best to ignore the very children he was so unfairly hired to teach. After all, his substitution role was only supposed to be for a week at the most. It wasn’t by his choice that he was made teacher of that class for two entire years in a row. Still, he was one of my favorite instructors. He was always kind to me, because I was very quiet. I never actually did any work of course, but it was enough to simply be quiet while the chaos around me ensued – enough apparently to earn an “A” in that class.

Another teacher I look back on with fondness was my high school programming instructor. I had her three years in a row, from sophomore to senior. No doubt that warrants some explanation. You see, I say “programming” instructor, but she was actually the presider of three classes, in the same room, at the same time. Once you have had time to digest that, I will then proceed by referring to her from now on as a “presider” rather than an instructor. It was unfortunate that the old girl – of sixty-eight in fact – often was unable to for fill that role as well.

This classroom was split into three sections. There was a group of students for Computer Programming 1, Computer Programming 2, and Advanced Placement Computer Science. Teaching all three classes at once was an amazing feat for the presider of this classroom. Or rather, it would have been, if said “instructor” actually knew how to turn on or operate a computer. What she did instead was post random, non-related topics on the writing board. We then had to take out our “journals” and write one to two paragraphs on said topic. These topics typically involved themes ranging from the flavor of hamburgers to who we would vote for president that year. At first, one might think that perhaps she was attempting to draw an analogy between everyday life, and the logical structure of computer code. However, she wasn’t. She merely graded us on our grammar.

One might also be dissuaded from the aforementioned theory after seeing her literally “speak” to a computer after I told her I was trying to develop a user interface where the person would simply use normal sentences to tell the computer what to do, and the computer would respond in amusing ways similar to the old “Eliza” program for the Macs at the time. Granted, I suppose I should have specified to her that you had to actually type the sentences, rather than verbally abuse the 50Mhz machine. Alas, I was young and foolish back in the nineties.

At the risk of dwelling on this one instance in my Florida public school life, I feel I still have many amusing anecdotes to share pertaining to this class. It was, after all, actually three classes with the same presider each year. And, the cookies she baked in class - and sold to us for two dollars each - were quite good.

For instance, for many of us it was our favorite class of the day. We would all play Quake and Diablo over the LAN for the entire period. And should she come by to check up on us and ask us what we were doing, we would simply tell her that we were programming a video game. Another of our group hijinks – which I was ashamedly a part of – involved downloading and running various remote user programs, which was quite a new concept in those days. We would use software such as NetBus to take control of her own desk computer, forcing it to do things such as open and close the CD tray, remotely move her mouse around, force involuntary shutdowns, and other similar pranks. The end result was a hilarious display of this sixty-nine year old woman literally beating her monitor with a broomstick.

But enough of my school days. As stated before, I graduated in 2001 (with honors). It is now 2013, and the question remains: Do Florida schools still “suck”? I found this to be difficult to answer. After all, it has been a long time since I have been in the system myself. To quote my own parents and their parents before them: “They aren’t teaching you kids the same thing these days that we were taught.” I have to agree with this. My own mother has been an employee of the school system for over thirty years now. The stories she has relayed to me made my eyebrows rise on more than one occasion, and for more than one reason.

Based on what I gather from her and others who work in the school system, the standards are much higher now. I can attest this myself, as I have seen the workload and course material placed on today’s students first hand. The bar for a teacher’s knowledge requirement has also apparently been raised significantly. Gone are the days when a teacher can simply get through their course by reading a magazine at their desk. Students also now have access to a much wider array of classroom technology, and can benefit from innovative teaching methods that simply did not exist in 2001.

However, while there is a significant boost in the quality of the teachers and schools themselves, there appears to be conversely equal downward trend in the quality of students. Remember the kindly Indian fellow who attempted to teach my chaotic math class back in middle school? That same teacher is now replaced by someone who has a doctorate. The students who made that same classroom impossible to learn in before, are now replaced with delinquents who make learning not only impossible, but dangerous.

Over the past few years since I last attended, Florida has received government money that has most definitely improved the school system on the whole. However, it now seems that the problem may run far deeper than the public schools. Teachers with PhD’s are seemingly unable to teach students, because they are too busy taking on the role of their parents. Belligerent disrespect from students in Orlando schools is enough to make most teachers here reconsider their chosen profession. Even as I write this, a legislative bill is currently being considered to allow – and encourage – Florida teachers to carry firearms to work.

From all accounts, the problems typically seem to arise from low-income areas. This is not altogether surprising. For example, a child brought up in a home with only one parent who is working two to three jobs, simply will not have the opportunity to be taught proper social etiquette. One could conclude that the problem therefor lies with the parent, rather than the schools. But that of course is unfair to the parent. I have to believe that said parent is working these jobs to support said child, and is forced to choose between starvation and social protocol.

If this is true, then we can conclude that the problem lies not with the schools, nor with the parent. What we are inevitably left with to blame is a Darwinian system of wealth, which is immensely destructive to not only our education system, but our society as a whole. One cannot simply write off the students of today as “thugs” and ignore it as a typical problem with Florida schools. What we are witnessing here is nothing short of the spread of ignorance, perpetuated by viral poverty. As we the people become a less equal and more divided nation, I fear we are in danger of losing our core values in favor of an elite few who hold power over the majority.

Do Florida schools still suck? Not anymore. And now we can’t use them as an excuse, either.

Michael Mercurio
Copyright 2013
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