If the public education system isn’t always on the minds of the American people, it should be. In the most basic terms, it is the institution that prepares our young people for the future, and their future is our country’s future. By every statistic available, our students lag behind a half dozen other countries in both academic preparation and achievement. The blossoming reform movement in the American education system, spearheaded by those outraged at the status quo and dedicated to transforming it, is the most significant social issue since feminism, and one whose outcome will reach far beyond the boundaries of our nation alone.
At times I feel like I’m in the city school trenches along with Daughter when she calls to relay experiences in her classroom. Having taught in charter and private schools, Daughter is now a kindergarten teacher in Harlem for the past year, an experience that has left her both impressed with the potential of her students, and shocked at the level of knowledge and lack of professionalism displayed by some of her fellow teachers. This week she told me the following story, one which she prefaced as being not particularly out of the ordinary. It happened the day Daughter announced to her class that they were beginning a unit on the fifty United States. The teacher she shares the class with, and the two paraeducators assigned to them, all piped up at once to correct her that there were 53 states. Daughter interrupted her lesson to tell them that there were, in fact, 50 states. No, the adult educators in the room insisted, there used to be 50 states, but now there are 53. The kindergartners looked back and forth with growing confusion. “What are these additional three states?” Daughter asked the adults. In unison they replied, “Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico.”
Determined to have the children learn this fact correctly, Daughter told her colleagues that there had been 48 states before the addition of Alaska and Hawaii, and Puerto Rico is not actually a state. This is why there are 50 stars on our flag, one representing each state. When the co-teacher and paras became more vocal in their insistence, Daughter suggested they go consult a computer. She finished her lesson and the colleagues said nothing after their Google search. Not even “Oops.”
The recent award-winning documentary, Waiting for “Superman” is more than a harrowing depiction of a broken system and the students it fails to serve. It is a cautionary tale. Ripped to shreds by unions, politics, Catch-22 directives, and a pervasive social atmosphere that teachers and parents are more adversaries than allies, it would take more than just one Superman to set us back on the right path. It will take dedicated and insightful reformers like Michelle Rhee of the New Teacher Project and StudentsFirst, and Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children’s Zone to move the focus squarely onto the students’ best interest where it belongs. Here in New York City, Mayor Bloomberg insisted on appointing a school chancellor with no background in education. Had it worked out, the mayor could have had a grandstanding “I told you so” moment. Now that Cathleen Black is out after only a few months, the spotlight is on his hubris instead with “WTF was he thinking?” Even Black’s supporters knew she was doomed in her first weeks on the job when she toured an inner city school and quipped that the solution for overcrowding may lie in better birth control. Yikes.
What makes for a solid foundation in a student’s education? Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone has demonstrated that poverty need not be a barrier to academic achievement and the life-changing self-esteem that follows. Michelle Rhee, charter school proponent, former chancellor of Washington D.C.’s school system, and founder of the StudentsFirst initiative maintains that the most essential thing in a child’s education is having a good teacher three years in a row. With the long-standing public school policy of layoffs based on seniority, and tenure without review, that scenario is unlikely. Young teachers with the idealism and energy to usher in the necessary reforms will be the first to go.
There are as many gifted teachers with tenure as there are those who have it without merit, and no other acceptable system is yet in place to reward professional performance with job security. That said, we are approaching the eleventh hour. The countries in other parts of the world that are kicking our ass in education, most notably in Asia, have a cultural climate that reveres teachers. Only the best and brightest are chosen to pursue careers in education, and they are remunerated and respected in kind. American society promotes the notion that if you have no special talent or direction in life, you can always be a teacher. You get benefits for life and summers off, plus you can never be fired. Great for the teacher, not so much for the student. This is how it happens that our children can be taught by adults who don’t know how many states there are. Consider the potential impact of these three individuals in their careers so far: three educators with a combined 30+ years and 25 children in each class per year. You do the math. I’m worried they can’t.
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