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03.23 Why Not Utopia?
We Can Make Every Public School Great—if We Choose To Do So
The powers that be don't really want small class sizes and good facilities for all students; if they did, we would have them.
I worked as an art teacher in New York City public schools (both elementary and high school levels) for a bit over 25 years. During that entire time I worked with teachers of varying skills. There were some who were great teachers, some average, some mediocre and a tiny fraction who were awful. Some were great with discipline and, even with a large class of more than 30 students, the kids would focus, work and learn. Some of them weren't always necessarily that great with content, while other teachers knew their content well, but wern't good with discipline and worked better with smaller groups of kids.
I was never good at well-controlled discipline—my classes were what I would call "controlled chaos," busy workshops (being studio art classes). Occasionally some kid would step out of that control and cause trouble, but generally good work was done. It was extremely difficult, though, to give attention to students who wanted individual help on their projects, and I would spend the class period running around the room never getting to everyone who wanted assistance.
Handling 34 teenagers or younger (170 students per semester in high schools) is very difficult for a long career—you leave the school at the end of the day feeling wiped out. There is no one who can be what you call a “superman” for very long—I often spent 10 to 12 hours a day at the school (often with no extra pay, but just because I wanted to), and it worked for me because I'm a bachelor, but if you are a mother or father, you have another part of your life that needs attending.
Many of these so-called great 'charter programs' work because they pick their students and do not deal with the kids who have serious learning problems or horrid distractions and obstacles in their family, home and/or community lives. They also hire teachers who are expected to put in endless unpaid extra hours with students and in meetings beyond the school day. The so-called education experts like Mayor Michael Bloomberg like data, but the data do not show that charters are better at educating students than the ordinary public schools. In fact, data show that public schools are improving in areas such as mathematics, and that they generally do as well or better than the charter schools, even the best ones.
In New York City, charters like Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children's Zone and Moskowitz's Harlem Success Academies are fairly successful, but they do not have large classes; and while they are non-profit, they get huge amounts of money from corporate donors, and their leaders are paid very very well—so much so that they are in a sense 'getting the profits'.
The Harlem Children's Zone claims to deal with systemic problems in a student's home life and community, such as poverty, lack of health care, and so on. Some of its students have been kicked out (“counseled out”) when they do not meet expectations. You can't do that in a typical public school unless the student commits a crime, and even then it depends on the severity and repetition of extremely bad behaviors.
Corporate people bankroll many of these charters—showing there can be lots of money to be gained by privatizing the education system. The charters can be fine as laboratories for trying new methods of teaching, but their teachers should have the same employment situation as teachers in the regular public schools. There is no reason that they should not be allowed union representation, for example, and enjoy the health care, retirement benefits and due process that come with that representation.
In fact, the goal of school reform should be to ensure that every single school in the country deserves and gets the same funding, resources, facilities, and services for all children. All schools should be good schools in a good world. There should be no schools that get better facilities, resources and teachers just because they have wealthy donors or parents who can pay for insanely expensive tuitions.
The aim of politicians and people like Bloomberg, unfortunately, is to get rid of the teachers' unions and put out to pasture the older experienced teachers who earn more, thereby reducing expenses of public schools. Unions help to protect teachers from administrators who are unfair or incompetent. Often these administrators are former teachers who barely taught and worked hard to get out of the classroom as soon as possible. They usually are not the most highly skilled or knowledgeable teachers, as the title 'principal' or 'master 'implies.
When Bloomberg spoke "ex cathedra" of being able to fire 50% of New York City's public school teachers and have 70 students in a room, he and his ilk are trying to save money, but on the backs of both the teachers and the students. In my opinion, the politicians and corporate donors to school reform on the whole really don't care whether all the students are well educated or not; otherwise they would fight for every school to have the same quality of facilities, resources, varieties of course selections from all of the humanities, arts and sciences and class sizes that the elite private schools have for the children very wealthy.
Would they, for example, tolerate large classes for their children? Every single teacher I know will tell you small class size is on the top of their wish list for a better education system. Imagine an English or history teacher grading 34 papers or exams, every few days or weeks? Imagine the silly NYC public school art teacher (if there is still one left in the school) giving attention to 34 individuals, all at work on projects? Now imagine the qualitative difference in private or upper middle class suburban schools with 10, 15 or 20 kids per class. Upper middle class neighborhoods get schools with excellent facilities and small classes. Private schools for the wealthy get small classes and good facilities. The powers that be don't really want that for everyone; if they did, we would have them.
Teacher tenure does not prevent a school from getting rid of a bad teacher, it just provides due process, which we all deserve.
Finally, if there are so many impressive amazing superman teachers in the mill, ready to take over the classrooms of America from the old-fashioned run-of-the-mill teachers, where are they? There aren't enough of them. Most of us teachers are average to very good in most of our skill sets, and most take their job seriously. I have met teachers who should not be in the classroom, but they are the exception and they remained in the schools because some incompetent administrators didn't do their job in the first several years before the teacher received certification. The administrators just let them continue. Most burnt-out bad teachers started out that way, I believe. Teacher tenure does not prevent a school from getting rid of a bad teacher, it just provides due process, which we all deserve.
It takes years of practice to master any skill. I certainly became a better teacher over the years, and made many mistakes along the way. I've taught many lessons that I was not satisfied with in my time. The fact is, though, that my last decade, and especially the last five years or so of teaching, were my very best. New teachers have one thing going for them, lots of energy and idealism, but their skills are not those of a seasoned teacher. Over half of new teachers are gone within the first five years in the classroom (often by their own choice), so it's clear that energy and idealism do not last long.
I apologize if any of this essay was repetitious or sounded like I was whining. In all honesty, teaching was the best job I ever had. I loved working with the students, and I feel quite proud of the work I did. Those who attack teachers and their unions really aren't helping to improve schools, but instead are demoralizing the teachers who are working hard to do right by their students.
Paul Wortman describes himself as a "proud, albeit indignant, retired teacher and teachers unionist."
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This story was published on January 13, 2012.