Whipping Boy

  Jerome Shea       December 1, 2007      Weekend Wonk

I have taught in college for more than 40 years, and the Longsuffering Diana has taught in our public elementary schools for more than 20 years. That’s more than 60 years in the classroom, more than 60 years of frustration and, sometimes, elation. So when I say that we know something about education, I hope you will agree that we have real “street cred.” We can talk the talk because we have walked the walk.

Few subjects are more incendiary than education, specifically the state of American education (though I suspect that societies around the world have the same on-going debates). I take this as a deep compliment: people know in their guts that education is the most important thing we have going for us, that it is well worth fighting over. I take solace in that implied compliment when the brickbats start to fly.

Here is an interesting fact to start with. In poll after poll, the public seems to agree with the media and the politicians that our public school system is going to hell in the proverbial hand basket. But then, when the respondent is asked about personal experiences—the grammar school where his child is a second grader, the high school where her son is a junior—that school and those teachers and administrators almost always get good marks, somewhere at least in the B range. I don’t know how to account for this disconnect, but it, too, affords some solace.

The problem in the ongoing argument—one problem—is that, as Diana says, anyone who has gone to school feels that he or she is thereby an expert on schooling. (Oddly, but thankfully, hardly anyone who has gone under the knife thinks he is an expert on surgery. But I have promised myself not to take cheap shots here.). Anyway, let us look at some of the observations, accusations, and proposals that are out there.

“A little competition will do the public schools a world of good.” This is one of my favorites and we heard it over and over when the voucher people came on the scene about 20 years ago. If the voucher plans pass legal muster (we were told), we will see that the private schools perform wonderfully and the public schools will take note and shape up for their own preservation (notice the implication: right now, the vast majority of public school teachers and administrators are lazy clock-punchers). It is hard to know where to start the rebuttal. For one thing, private schools by definition can cherry-pick the very best students with the best support at home; public schools, by definition, have to accept everyone: the angry, the disaffected, and the challenged along with the more tractable. More profoundly, this borrows from the simplistic view that students are like widgets—little identical metal doohickeys. If my people are making widgets on an assembly line, competition will indeed do me a lot of good. I will crack down on my employees and my suppliers, I will pay bonuses to my more dexterous workers, I will reward those who have the best work records, and so forth. Sooner or later I will probably beat the competition.

But students are not widgets. Widgets do not have meltdowns right there in front of the other widgets. Widgets don’t come to class hungry or having been shunted to the grandparents’ house in the middle of the night. Widgets don’t sometimes refuse to pay attention and simply refuse to learn (in its most traditional manifestation we call this “senioritis”). Widgets don’t text-message during class, then lawyer up if their cells get confiscated. Oh, and especially as middle school teachers know, widgets don’t have hormones. My comments here are not meant as some sort of exculpatory whine, but we will make no progress at all if we start from such a misperceived basis. Give the teachers, as they say, a break. Students are not widgets. We should be thankful for that, even if the job would be so much easier if they were.

And speaking of giving teachers a break, let’s talk about what I call the Canard That Will Not Die, the observation that teachers get paid very well considering that they work only six hours a day for only nine months of the year. These are fighting words! All of the “K through 12” teachers that I know cram more than 12 months of work into those nine months. There are no “shoemaker’s elves,” to plan lessons and grade papers, to redecorate the classroom for every season and holiday, to oversee the yearbook or the drama society. A committed teacher works every evening and every weekend. What’s worse, I have seen even teacher supporters write, “Yes, it’s true that they work only nine months of the year, but….” Deliver us from our friends, O Lord! The Longsuffering D. has had the supercrud—a gift from her second graders—for more than a month now. She will not take a day or two off. For one thing, the paperwork to arrange for a substitute is draconian; for another, she cannot abide losing ground even if the sub is a good one. So she soldiers on with cough drops and aspirin and gumption. The other morning, while she was having a paroxysm of coughing, I suggested a career change to an easier line of work, like coal mining or stoop labor. I was not entirely joking.

Can our schools be improved? Absolutely. It’s hard to think of any enterprise that can’t be improved. Simplfying the schools’ tasks might help, but by now every special interest, worthy or not, has stuck an oar in, so we have special ed and mainstreamed ed and citizenship classes and sensitivity training and ESL and on and on and on. Regulations and paperwork grow like kudzu. Everybody is itching to sue everybody. But these are moot points: I don’t see us putting the toothpaste back in the tube. Teacher pay is improving, but has a way to go (“Please DO throw money at the problem,” says Jonathan Kozol plaintively) as is respect for teachers as professionals, on a par with doctors and lawyers (well, I’d soft-pedal the lawyer part).

You want improvement? Here is an idea—a dirt cheap idea—which has got proven results: year-round schools. Same number of school days, but reconfigured, with three-week breaks throughout the year and a full six-week break in the summer. And it works, for the good reason that the teacher does not have to spend August and September reteaching what the kids forgot over the long—and ultimately, for them, boring—summer. Albuquerque Public Schools floated this idea about ten years ago, and you would think it was a proposal to include pederasty in the curriculum! Evidently what I call the Huck Finn myth—the good ol’ summertime as sacrosanct—trumps everything else.

I hope I am wrong, but I am beginning to think that maybe all we are really looking for is something to fret over, some sore to pick at. Most suggestions for improvement die a quick and mocking death. We really just want a reliable whipping boy.

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