Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The schools need help, MV 13

By Jeffrey C. Turbitt

At the beginning of the school year, results are released detailing the performance of schools, principals, teachers and students via the SAT 10 scores. The infamous No Child Left Behind Act, and school rivalries, puts everyone under a lot of pressure to achieve higher scores. Apparently deficiencies in scores on this test are a result of "bad proctoring" by the teachers if comments from the associate commissioner and a tirade from my own vice principal at a recent, testy staff meeting are to be believed.

I've proctored these tests for four years, and there are many problems with education in these islands and these tests in particular. Proctoring is the least of the problems. First, the test is exceedingly long. It's a three day plus affair. It doesn't affect the students' grade or their ability to graduate. They know that.

Regular student attendance is always an issue in the best of times. I found it astonishing to see this quote in the paper from the associate commissioner. “Across all schools, we have a good attendance rate. Among the high schools, two recorded a 98 and 95 percent rate." There is that old saying about lies, damned lies and statistics. Here is the reality I've seen for five years now: Students disappear for weeks at a time in the high school for vague and I'm sure usually not very good reasons. To achieve that rate, these habitually absent students must be removed from the rosters to achieve that inflated attendance number. The students tend to come back later as if nothing happened with little or no explanation. One of the better reasons for absence, a death in the family, can mean twenty days of student absences. That's not something that can be easily overcome, and with large island families, there can be quite a few deaths in the family. The never ending war on betel nut on campuses leads to suspensions, as do other violations of school rules.

The SAT 10 tests are on grade level and the material more rigorous than students are used to, so they can be overwhelmed. Very few students take the even more difficult, and even more important SAT college admissions test, either. PSS classes, especially in the high school for the non-honors students, are not taught on grade level because so few students are actually on grade level. In four years I saw a staggering number of seniors, the near finished product, write essays lacking capital letters, punctuation, subject/verb agreement or using multiple paragraphs. That isn't something that can be glossed over, so I had to incorporate this largely grade two or three materials into grade twelve, which is not the type of thing that helps to prepare for SAT 10, but it does help in being educated on a basic level.

The SAT 10 test is also late in the school year when motivation decreases anyway. Beyond that, the SAT 10 test and the Standards Based Testing come within weeks of each other, and it leads to test fatigue. I’ve made this point to PSS leadership before. Some students simply just fill in answers at random or draw a picture of Bob Marley. I personally give stern admonitions on this issue. I've seen the scores for students who I knew were near grade level, yet their tests indicate they were six or seven grades behind, which makes for an inaccurate assessment. When I confronted the students, they admitted not taking it seriously, so I would agree student motivation on the test is an issue, but I don’t think teachers downplayed the test, as the scores reflect on the teachers. I once saw a student close the book within minutes. I reiterated to him the seriousness of the test. He went at it a few more minutes and quickly gave up and told me he just had no idea. I later had this student in class, got to know him, and understood why the test so overwhelmed him. He was about six grade levels behind.

There are two main victims to the fact that these islands have given short shrift to education since time immemorial. The student well behind grade level who can't get the academic intensive care he or she needs in classes of thirty plus, and the non-honors student at or slightly above grade level who gets a curriculum that isn't challenging enough and becomes bored.

There are real consequences to the fact that each year more and more students enter public schools that are less and less funded. Platitudes like "bear with us" or "be creative" are what get uttered to say something in this situation. I prefer those to verbal abuse -- especially since education is a partnership between teachers, parents, students and community leaders, but all the blame gets dumped on teachers. As a parent of two and soon to be three, I hold myself as the one primarily responsible for the education and development of my boys, not their teachers.

This news report also noted that elementary schools have better participation in the tests. This is hardly surprising. Parental involvement is much higher at the elementary school level. Kids tend to succumb to more negative influences as they get older. It doesn't help that the middle schools are wildly overcrowded, and Hopwood in particular is in a shocking state of disrepair. There is a large administrative and teacher turnover all around related to all kinds of reasons as the islands' economy continues to implode. My personal opinion is that many of our elementary schools are on par with decent schools in the states. Things fall apart at the middle school level, and the first two years of high school are more like middle school. Educational research shows this isn’t just a CNMI problem, either. Research shows there are problems at the middle schools as a whole, as this is the place where learning slows down. Staffing research also shows that teachers tend to prefer to work in elementary schools or high schools, and not middle schools. The New York Times had a large feature on this issue recently.

I have a child in San Vicente Elementary School, and I've always been happy with that school, and I've heard good things about other elementary schools. However, my sons would never go to public middle school on this island, and that isn't a knock on the good people who work at those schools, but a comment on the area that I believe is most harmed by the CNMI's longstanding unwillingness to fund its schools. The impact of poor facilities, overcrowded classrooms and demoralized staff doing their best with students at a precocious and vulnerable age is most evident in our middle schools, and the situation there and system wide needs attention, not excuses.

Jeffrey C. Turbitt is the language arts department chairman at Saipan Southern High School, as well as an avid scuba diver and traveler. He offers more thoughts in his blog “Hypercritical Thoughts” at: www.turbittj.blogspot.com/ He welcomes feedback, tips and story ideas at turbittj@yahoo.com. His column appears regularly on Wednesdays.


Jimbo Rayphand said...


Very well put article on plight of PSS students and current state of matters.

I've been anxiously awaiting your thoughts on the issue of schools not spending all of their IAP funds--half wanted to get on a soap box about how PSS in some cases doesn't allow schools to spend their money on Innovative (the "I" in IAP)programs and is more likely to only allow much of the same year in and year out [i.e.- technological advancement, reading materials, etc.] -- not knocking these concepts, but certain schools (let's say...hmm...SVES for instance) could have benefited from other less systemic academic/computer purchases (focus more on recruitment of and retention of highly qualified teachers), especially when the general concensus from the staff is to go for it...concept being if you accommodate the desires of a school's staff and not just those of a Principal or other head honchos, you may in effect be revatilizing an otherwise sinking morale...all within the perameters of intent behind the Innovative Assistance Programs...a happier, better trained teacher will surely have a positive effect on students. Then there was the passing thought about wanting to spotlight some of the finer points about the general procurement system, but that's neither here nor there--some people maneuver the system better than others.

The IAP funds only provide a supplement and an opportunity to ease the main problem of, as you so eloquently point out, overcrowded classrooms - IAP funds can not be used to hire more people or build more buildings. Lastly, you may have, at least, a general sense of the painstaking efforts a Principal has to go through to sufficiently staff a school through the fiasco surrounding Cynthia's coming on board...this is due, in part, to budgetary limitations, but more often than not it's usually the result of a breakdown in communication from one department to the next.

Thank you for your persistence in discussing the issues. As always, Jimbo

Jeff said...

Class size and quality of facilities are the PSS issues. All others pale in comparison. It also isn't an issue that effects all schools equally. Some are way worse than others. Federal dollars help a little on that stuff, and it's so key.

Anonymous said...

What is the averave teacher student ratio?

I attended schools in Saipan and my larger classes had around 38 kids. I will grab a copy of some of my old yearbooks and check if it was consistant throughout the other grade levels.

I never saw it as a make or break hinderence to learning.

Jeff said...

the overall is like 25 to 1, but that is skewed by small art and computer classes.

Student teacher ratio is the key issue in my opinion -- especially in the core classes that are hte most overcrowded. it is 30 plus to 1 in core classes

the un cheesy Bree said...

the middle schools need to be demolished and rebuilt with at least 4 on the island or elementary schools with 8 grades.

12 teachers were out on Monday! That's 30% of the staff at Hopwood. 6 or 7 is the norm these days. Used to be 3 was average.

I'm out on family leave for the baby and got called yesterday to come back to work, after only 2 weeks, because there are no subs. I have a legitimate reason to be absent and am missing work for the first time in 3 years. Unlike other teachers who seem to come down with illness one day a week.

Hopwood stands for Hope Our Pupils Won't Object to Our Disrupting their learning

The Saipan Blogger アンジェロ・ビラゴメズ said...

Some people in the government earn one vacation day and 1/2 sick day for every two week pay period. Is this true for the schools?

Jeff said...

No, it's not. We get 2 hours sick leave and 1.5 annual leave.

Bruce A. Bateman said...

The real issue causing the learning deficiencies you describe, Jeff, is not teacher student ratio or poor facilities but the funding level provided by local government you mention later in the article.

To change that will require a major alteration in the T word structure. You know what a fan I am of government taxation and consequent redirection of funds. I'm not. But in this case to achieve an adequate, just adequate, funding level some form of property tax (used widely on the mainland) or an untouchable sales tax trust fund will have to be instituted. The former won't happen until and unless Art. 12 is repealed so the latter is the best possible hope.

Bond issues will be tougher to generate with the general decline of govt revenue (triple D minus bonds? (:-)). The last one of some 80 million bucks doesn't show on the PSS budget nor does the repayment schedule. I'm not a bond expert but I don't think it takes one to see that one can't be floated here anytime soon so that 'instant' remedy probably won't be seen.

There is hope on the horizon. As population levels decline due to the worsening economy, there may be a trend toward smaller student populations in coming years instead of the historically ever-larger ones. That would at least put per student spending at a more reasonable level even if funding does not increase.

Lastly, Bree’s comments about Jr high needing 2 more facilities (3 if Hopwood is demolished and rebuilt) really makes sense. Both of you seem to think that JR high is where the breakdown occurs. If student populations decrease maybe just a Hopwood rebuild would do. If they remain stable or increas at least 2 more schools seems to be the answer. Back to ‘where the heck does the money come from’.

I'm sure glad I don't have to spend 8 - 10 hurs a day in those termite infested classrooms.

Good article, Jeff.

Pilgrim said...

My 17 year old niece attends a private Catholic school here in the Philippines. Her class has 62 kids. She gets straight A's. And hasn't learned shit. Hell yes size matters.. including class size.

Angie said...


I agree with most of your article! I fell the breakdown started when we(the USA) went to the Junior High system or Middle School system. If you look at all the statistics they show that scores have all fallen since that time. A lot of other areas have also been affected- not just for the students.

The change was initially started, to help our students with socialization, which was supposed to help our kids in their effort to further their education. I feel that it was all a "Crock"!!
It was a systems' way to consolidate resources and to cut back on staffing- which was the beginning of larger class sizes and many other headachs.

I feel that we should go back to the true elementary system (K thru
8th). There would be a lot of advantages,like, students needing to be role models for younger students. The system seemed to work in the past. Why do we keep trying to fix something that isn't broken?

Keep up the good work Jeff!