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Why No Silver Bullet Can Fix Public Education in America
by John Owens
When I left a magazine-publishing job in a Manhattan skyscraper to teach English at a public school in New York City's South Bronx, I thought I could do some good for underprivileged kids. I am a middle-aged professional, but I'm not lazy. I'm not crazy. I'm great with kids and I love literature.
My love of words has taken me from a troubled, working-class childhood to a wonderfully happy, successful life. I have been writing—and teaching others to write—for a long time. And I have enjoyed helping younger writers build great careers. During a three-decade career as a writer, editor, and corporate executive, I had traveled to more than a hundred countries, met heads of state, and picked up some wisdom about getting along and getting ahead in life that I thought was worth sharing with those just starting the journey. I wanted to make an impact directly with kids in the classroom. To use the cliché, I felt it was time to "give back."
There was something else at work here, too. For want of a better word, I will call it patriotism. The flood of immigrants into New York City in recent years has been astounding. According to data compiled by the Weissman Center for International Business at Baruch College, nearly 40 percent of the city's residents are immigrants. Queens and Manhattan have seen huge influxes from China. The Bronx and Brooklyn are teeming with Dominicans. Africans, especially from the central belt of the continent, are numerous in the Bronx.
Needless to say, the children who have come with—or been born—to these recent arrivals are the future of our country. They need teachers and mentors, guides to help them navigate what often is a new world. Teachers like I had growing up. Teachers who can present a passion for the greatness and potential of learning, and the greatness and potential of America. Teachers who can make kids want to be upstanding, successful Americans.
But no sooner had I entered my school in the South Bronx than I discovered I wasn't really there to help. Rather, I, like virtually all of the other teachers, was simply a scapegoat. A fall guy for a broken system.
Today, in New York City, as well as in schools around America, "bad teacher" and "teacher" have become almost interchangeable. Listen to billionaire "visionaries" such as Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg, as well as "experts" such as Michelle Rhee. The problem with our schools is bad teachers. As The New Yorker’s Rebecca Mead wrote in September 2012, "A certain casual demonization of teachers has become sufficiently culturally prevalent that it passes for uncontroversial."
And in a school that fashioned itself a model of school reform, the principal was eager to prove that like every other school, hers was infested with bad teachers.
Many of my eighth and ninth graders had learning problems, and I couldn't fix them in the 46 minutes I had them each day. That made me a bad teacher. Many of my students had behavior problems, and I couldn't fix those problems, either. And I wasn't very good at masking these problems, so my "scholars" didn't look like they were learning when they weren't actually learning. I also couldn't keep them from getting excited and boisterous when they were learning. "Don't get the kids excited," I was told. "This is a "cathedral of learning."
This is the kind of make-believe we're dealing with in today's schools. The people at the top come up with a fantasy, and if it doesn't come true, it's because of bad teachers.
As my principal saw it—and this is very common today—her job was to come up with goals, and our job was to achieve them, no questions asked. She demanded that these kids—most of them poor and many from troubled backgrounds, including homelessness—be silent, contemplative "scholars," sort of like the South Bronx version of Harry Potter. And that they turn in test scores and data to prove it.
The trouble was, all of the teachers had kids who needed special-education services because of their behavior and learning problems. We had kids for whom English was a very distant second language. I had a student in my ninth grade writing class who didn't speak a word of English. And a kid in my eighth grade English class who couldn't read.
How do you get the results that are required? Well, you either lower the bar to the point where almost everyone can clear it, or you make up the results.
Despite all of the blaming of teachers for the problems, administrators and principals around the country—including my principal—have been charged with cheating and tampering with official records.
We have to fix this problem. America must get real and understand that no silver bullet is going solve our educational issues.
The first thing to recognize is that not everything in life—and certainly not in education—can be quantified. We have let data and spreadsheets hijack our educational system. Of course, we must have tests and assessments, but to make "raising the numbers" the point of education is not beneficial to anyone except those who make tests.
The next point is that education is expensive. It is people-intensive. Even with the help of technology, people are required. Well-trained people. There is a notion in our country that the best teachers are those from programs such as Teach For America, where brand-new college graduates with virtually no training—but a lot of energy and enthusiasm—outperform career educators. It's an idea that appeals to people who don't want to pay teachers more than minimum wage. But it's not true. Our public schools are not a movie in which energy and enthusiasm are enough.
Teachers need experience. Take it from someone who had none. And teachers need support—in special education, handling behavioral problems, and all manner of physical, emotional, and language issues. Anything short of that is delusional.
So, before we can even begin to improve our schools, we must stop being delusional and face reality.
Click here to add starting a conversation about testing in your community to your GOOD "to-do" list.
John Owens More InfoSome recent articles by John Owens:
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