Anyone who regularly reads Department of Education documents knows better than to expect fine literature. Many DOE memos and letters are so full of the bureaucratic nonsense known as “eduspeak” that they make an IRS 1040 form look like “Huckleberry Finn.” But a letter recently sent home with my 1st-grader set a new low.
The title, “Newly Identified District in Need of Improvement Year 10,” is parents’ first clue they’re in for trouble. Only the DOE could have a school district in need of improvement for 10 years and describe it as “Newly Identified.” But it gets worse.
I give you the second paragraph, as written, with boldface letters as shown in the original:
"During the 2010-11 school year, English Language Arts was designated as a District in Need of Improvement Year 9 (DINI-9) in English Language Arts. Because the District failed to make AYP at the elementary, middle and high school level in English Language Arts in 2010-11, the District has been designated as a District in Need of Improvement Year 10 (DINI-10) in English Language Arts for the 2011-12 school year."
If you didn’t catch the drift: My child’s school district isn’t doing so well in English Language Arts (formerly known as English). Lucky for us, the Hemingways and Faulkners at the Department of Education are on the case.
But if you read the entire three-page letter, surf the web, dig up data and make some calls (as I did), you get to the true nub of the matter: Some schools in District 3 (the Upper West Side portion of the New York City school system where my daughter attends elementary school) aren’t making adequate yearly progress (known as “AYP”) in teaching kids English, particularly those kids who are still learning to speak English. It’s largely happening at a few high schools that qualify for federal Title 1 money, which is given to schools that have a high percentage of poor families.
Absolutely none of this applies to my daughter’s elementary school. But it seems officials at the District 3 office were required to send out this letter to every parent in District 3, much the way banks are required to tell you that your canceled checks are now being stored in Bolivia instead of Venezuela.
Many parents probably read the first confusing sentences, said “Meh” and threw this letter in the trash. But those who struggled to decipher this gibberish probably felt the same dispiriting sense of powerlessness that I felt. So many of the obstacles to better schools are present in this one document: poor communication, lax administrative oversight, confusing bureaucratic requirements, wasteful distribution — all provided at taxpayer expense, and sent home in my child’s backpack.
Yet buried on Page 2 of this letter is one helpful nugget. Under the heading “How can parents help their District improve?” are five suggestions, the last of which states simply, “Visit your child’s school and become a volunteer.” It’s good advice, and it’s truly the one thing parents can do that has an immediate, positive effect on the education their children receive.
Should you decide to become a school volunteer, I commend you and wish you luck. You’ll need it to get past the school's security guard.