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The public schools' last hurrah?

In 1983, Education Secretary Terrel Bell released A Nation At Risk: The Imperative for Education Reform. It was a stark and angry report, concluding, "If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war." The effect, Bell recalls, was "electrifying." Newspapers trumpeted the story. In statehouses, governors like Bill Clinton, Richard Riley, and Lamar Alexander pushed wide-ranging reform packages.

Thirteen years later, Bell laments, we've seen "some improvement ... but not enough." The origins of his landmark report provide a clue as to why: Bell wanted President Reagan to announce the study himself, appoint a panel to conduct it, and personally give members their assignments. The White House demurred. Such an action, Bell remembers being told, would undermine Reagan's efforts to abolish the Department of Education and slash federal education funding. In other words, the President was too busy disengaging from education to engage it.

The moment was both sorely disappointing and sadly predictable - another mark of the persistent failure of national leaders to elevate schools to the top of the country's agenda. "Look at how George Bush aroused the public over Saddam Hussein's invasion and conquest of Kuwait," Bell says. "He just wouldn't leave it alone. He went after it with all his heart." But schools have never commanded the same zeal. [Bush] is die one who said he wanted to be the education president," Bell says. "I'm a lifetime Republican, but I kept waiting" for Bush to make schools a top priority.

Bill Clinton has kept us waiting too. In Arkansas, he made education reform the centerpiece of his govenorship. Now that he's in a position to arouse public opinion, Clinton has faltered. His daughter attends the lovely Sidwell Friends School, a private school in Northwest Washington. But just miles from Sidwell, public school children go without books in schools packed to twice their intended capacity; they endure leaking roofs and putrid bathrooms.

The problems of public schools extend well beyond crumbling infrastructure. If children had top-notch teaching staffs, administrations that used funds efficiently, and effective curricula, maybe they would be doing all right. But they don't and they aren't. Meanwhile, confidence in public schools - even the "better" schools - is withering. Nearly 50 percent of Americans don't think a diploma from their local high school guarantees basic skills in math or reading. Six of ten parents would send their kids to private schools if they had the money. Support for public schools is "fragile," reports the public interest polling firm Public Agenda. And half-baked solutions such as vouchers are gaining popularity.

The loss of public schools would be a severe one. The purpose of education is not just to prepare successful workers and citizens, or to ensure equal opportunity. Those are vital functions; whether we perform them well determines the social and economic health of our country. But public schools, at their best, do something more. They provide a common space where, in a country fissured along lines of race and class, children of all backgrounds meet, interact, and learn to understand each other.

A recent USA Today poll shows that education is now Americans' most serious concern - above crime, the environment, and the economy. You would think our leaders would feel this sense of urgency, and that the subject of schools would dominate campaign rallies, television talk shows, and oped pages. This, of course, is not the case. It's no coincidence that the people who set the agenda - including activist Marian Wright Edelman, politicians Clinton and Al Gore, professional moralist Bill Bennett, movie director Robert Redford, and journalist Jim Lehrer - chose private schools for their children. This is true for the vast majority of the American elite.

It's hard to fault parents for seeking the best education for their kids. But these prominent Americans, by neglecting the crisis in public schools, are guaranteeing that the conditions that made them flee the public system will last, and possibly worsen, for the next generation.

There is no simple blueprint to revive poor schools, no formula for good ones. But there are five fundamental characteristics found in successful schools: A dynamite principal who has ample authority and support, and who is held accountable; classrooms filled with high-quality teachers; a curriculum that demands excellence; parents who are actively involved in the schools; and financial support that reflects education's vital importance.

I. HELP, NOT HINDRANCE, FROM ABOVE

At Roper Middle School for Science, Mathematics, and Technology in upper Northeast Washington, D.C., Principal Helena Jones walks her halls with the presence of someone who is both feared and loved. Rounding a comer, she sees two girls scuffling in front of a row of bright yellow lockers. Jones puts her hands on her hips and brushes back her bright red blazer. Her voice booms across the granite floors. "Where are you supposed to be?" The girls answer by going there.

Scuffles are an exception here. Roper is a flowering bud on a withering school system. The 600-some students are black (except for three Hispanics) and overwhelmingly poor; many of them, Jones says, come to school with "cold, callous hearts," numbed by violence and absent or abusive parents. But the school defies the odds. Its dropout rate is zero. Ninety percent of its graduates go on to complete high school, compared to a citywide rate of 50 percent. And tests show Roper students among the best in the city.

Jones, a vigorous woman with the physique of Grace Jones and the spirit of Eleanor Roosevelt, is the primary reason. No matter is too small to warrant her attention and no task too ambitious. When she sees a scrap of paper on the floor, she picks it up. When "downtown" is slow to make a necessary repair, "I cuss them out and yell and then cuss some more" until she gets action. To upgrade her school technologically, Jones and her teachers sought and won grants from the Commerce Department and such companies as Kodak and Bell Atlantic.

Helena Jones's story shows the enormous good that an energetic, effective principal can do. The first and most important job of school administrators is to hire good principals, give them the support they need, and then hold them accountable for the success or failure of the school. In Wyoming, Ohio, for example, where I attended school in the eighties, die central administration is spare - just one superintendent and a few support staff for 1,683 students. The system's principals largely decide for themselves how to spend the money they have. And they do well. Though its spending per pupil is 9th in a county of 22 districts, Wyoming is ranked highest in every measure of performance.

In many districts, however, central administrators seem less concerned with getting good principals than obstructing them with cumbersome regulations. These bureaucracies suck up money that should be spent on teachers, books, and maintenance. In New York City schools, for example, only about 30 cents of every educational dollar goes to teachers and materials. hi Milwaukee, the figure is only 26 cents on the dollar.

Where does the rest of the money go? Teachers and principals have a hard time figuring it out. "When I hear bureaucrats speak at various functions, I look at them and say `How are they affecting my classroom at all?'" says Shannon Carey, a fifth grade teacher at Stonehurst Elementary school in Oakland, California. "The assistant superintendent for elementary education ... the only time I hear from her is when she is giving me some survey [to fill out]." Indeed, paperwork seems to be administrators' best friend: They produce-and demand - piles of it. Complicated federal and state regulations are as much at fault as self-serving bureaucrats. But the memos and regulations are about as relevant to classroom instruction as high-minded political theory is to horsetrading on Capitol Hill.

"Most of the curriculum guidebooks put out by the central board just sit in an office somewhere," says Deborah Meier, the celebrated educational innovator and former principal of the Central Park East school in East Harlem. Bulky discipline codes, she says, assume "there's one right way that fits all situations. It's pointless ... if I don't agree [with the rule], I won't enforce it."

Meanwhile, principals and teachers are not receiving the basic support they need. Liesl Frischmann, a teacher at Paul Junior High in Washington, D.C. ordered 18 reams of paper in September for photocopying; six months later, she's only gotten three reams. Unless she pays for copying out of her own pocket, her kids go without handouts. This story, unfortunately, is typical.

Theoretically, centralized purchasing saves money (through bulk purchases) and prevents corruption. But school boards regularly pay prices above those charged by stores like Staples. And corruption is rampant in the central offices themselves. In New York City, one city investigator found $620,000 worth of supplies missing from a school warehouse.

When principals and teachers are given sufficient authority, schools can shine. At Central Park East, Deborah Meier was allowed to design her own curriculum and decide on the allocation of resources The results were dramatic. One study showed that 80 percent of Central Park East high school graduates went on to college - compared to only 15 percent in East Harlem as a whole. Charter schools, which have now spread to 19 states, apply the same principle of school-based control. If schools want to have one less guidance counselor in order to decrease class sizes, they can. If they want to get kids to help with chores in order to save money on custodians, they can. That's what the Marblehead Community School in Massachusetts. does. If the school doesn't show results, the state will revoke its charter.

But decentralization is no magic bullet. When Chicago broke up its central office and devolved power to its 553 schools, some soared. Other schools sank under the weight of corruption and mismanagement. One administrator changed the grades of influential parents' children. "The mantra across the country has been `local control! local control!', which makes a lot of sense," says Maribeth Vander Weele, author of Reclaiming Our Schools. "What didn't make sense was to do it with no controls, no auditing, no investigative agency."

Every district needs a Maribeth Vander Weele: As director of investigations for the Chicago school system, she tracks down everything from abusive teachers to wayward supplies. Vander Weele and her colleagues have found warehouses filled with brand-new desks and hundreds of millions of dollars of waste in health care expenditures. Then there was the great toilet paper scandal. "We had videotape of a [school employee] unloading loads and loads of toilet paper at a dime store," she says. The lack of "toilet paper is a huge issue in schools.... And we found this guy stealing it. We talked to the store owner's wife and she said, `Oh yeah, he comes by here all the time. He gives us great prices.'"

As this story shows, central controls can't be eliminated entirely. And some tasks, such as recruiting personnel and providing some supplies, can be done more efficiently en masse. But everything possible should be kept within the schools. The country's much-admired parochial school system is a model in this regard. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia handles more than 100,000 students with only 25 employees, while the Philadelphia public school system has 600 administrative employees for 210,000 students. (Compared to D.C., which has 900 administrators for only 80,000 students, Philly schools are lean.)

Catholic schools are also small. Small helps. (See Michael Mayo's story, page 12.) When a school has hundreds of teachers, it's hard for everyone to know each other, let alone work together to solve problems. By contrast, at small schools like Wyoming High School and miracle schools" like Central Park East die faculty members are in constant communication.

II. IT TAKES A GOOD TEACHER

In 50 years, when I reflect on my education, I suspect most everything win have dissolved into a faint residue of memory - except for a few extraordinary teachers. I never thought of myself as a writer until a high school teacher noticed my work and told me how to improve it. I never thought I could write for a living until a college professor convinced me I could.

Most people feel that a good teacher was at the core of what made their schooling valuable. And yet society spits on the profession. Consider Janis Spindel, a matchmaker in New York City who organizes singles parties. "No one's a schlub," she recently told The New York Times. "We have a ton of investment bankers, stockbrokers, female attorneys and professional people. Not any teachers. People that are more quality."

That an investment banker is considered of "more quality" than a teacher speaks volumes about die country's twisted values. No school reform is more important than recruiting energetic and effective teachers. And doing so means waging war on attitudes like Janis Spindel's, giving teachers the respect and pay they deserve, and convincing the best and brightest that schools need their talent more than law firms and Wall Street.

Until the sixties and seventies, most women who wanted to work outside the home had two real options: teaching or nursing. Though this was no neat deal for women, schools did benefit from the injustice. Today bright young people have almost unlimited opportunities, and teaching school often ranks low on the list of options. The reason I never considered a teacher job growing up is that I didn't think it was ambitious enough," says Liesl Frischmann, who studied communications at American University. "When I pictured a teacher I pictured some of the burned-down substitute teachers that I'd had. I didn't think of the brightest, most capable people." Fortunately, in her senior year in college an influential professor encouraged her to consider teaching; she is now in her third year of teaching.

But the Janis Spindel syndrome - a sneering attitude toward teachers - is only part of the problem. Many first-rate people who do choose teaching make a beeline for private and parochial schools, deterred by certification requirements for public schools that are archaic, counterproductive, and, say many teachers, totally useless. One New York University class in "Exploring Education Issues," for example, featured such tasks as "workshopping on transactional communication situations" and "barnstorming on bypassing."

"They're ridiculous," says one teacher of the education courses she's taken. "You pay 200 dollars and get three graduate credits and you have no idea what happened to you." George Simmons, an English teacher at Middleborough High School in Massachusetts, agrees: "It's a waste of time." Is it any wonder that 40 percent of slots in education programs are filled with students in the lowest fifth of their college classes?

The irony is that the one academic credential that is proven to affect teacher quality - a bachelor's degree in the subject being taught - is not required by public schools. Harvard professor Ron Ferguson has shown that the more a teacher knows of his subject, the better his students tend to perform. Wealthier districts know this and tend to seek out teachers with such qualifications. Poorer districts often get stuck with the less-qualified: In schools with poor, high-minority populations, only one in three science classes is taught by a science major.

Meanwhile, would-be teachers are blocked by bogus certification requirements. Simmons tells the story of a former student who was studying civil engineering at college and wanted to be a teacher. Despite his expertise in math and physics - subjects in great demand in many schools - and his experience coaching youth football and baseball, he could only teach in public school by completing a bevy of education courses. "We discourage a lot of people," Simmons says wearily.

Requiring education degrees for teachers makes as little sense as blackballing actors who didn't go to acting school. It would be vastly more sensible for public schools to hire teachers based on subject knowledge, enthusiasm, and ability - the same criteria used by private and parochial schools. A number of states have taken steps in the right direction with "alternative certification," allowing teachers into classrooms without ed school classes (although typically they have to take those classes to continue teaching). A prime example of alternative certification's success is Teach For America, which sends college graduates to two-year teaching stints in the country's most desperate school systems. These teachers earn plaudits from principals, 77 percent of whom describe diem as better than their other beginning teachers. And 65 percent of Teach for America alumni have stayed in education.

Some teacher training is necessary. As Jonathan Schorr wrote in the Monthly in 1993, "developing and executing a good curriculum is about as simple as composing and performing a good symphony." As Schorr suggests, an initial training period should be short - as little as eight weeks. Then, novice teachers should be joined with a mentor, or "master teacher." Student teachers are too often thrown to the wolves without real support. Mentors would commit real energy to the relationship - and be rewarded financially for the effort.

The Uglier Task

Recruiting, training, and encouraging good teachers will go a long way toward improving public schools - but not far enough. The second, uglier task is to get rid of teachers who aren't doing their jobs. Talk to any teacher or principal and the stories tumble out. In my first three interviews for this article, I heard about these eye-opening cases:

* A junior high teacher who is an obvious alcoholic and brags to his colleagues about biding his time until retirement.

* A paranoid, abusive kindergarten teacher who accuses students of "spreading lies about me" and who once pinned a student against a wall.

* A congenial, but tired, third-grade teacher who sends all her hard-to-reach students - even very bright ones-to "special education" classes in order to get rid of them for half the day.

It might seem impossible that such teachers keep their jobs. Obviously, principals, fellow teachers, and even students know who they are. But the tenure laws that govern public schools make firing teachers as painful and expensive as removing an impacted wisdom tooth. "I can think of a teacher who used to have her children sit in front of the television for a couple of hours each day," says one veteran principal in a big-city school system. "It was mainly just as a baby-sitter, and I thought that was pretty criminal." But the principal took no action. "Unless you can prove gross incompetence," she says, you're not going to move a teacher."

Firing bad teachers is not impossible. But it is so difficult that principals rarely try. Consider Jay Dubner, a New York City school teacher who was convicted of a felony narcotics violation. It took two years and S 1 85.000 in legal fees for the city to dismiss him. Egregious cases like these at least generate media coverage and public indignation. After the Dubner case. New York State made it easier to fire a teacher convicted of a crime.

But most cases are less obvious to the outside world. One principal told me about an out-of-work actress who worked as a teacher in order to pay her bills. She would tell her students to put their heads down on their desks and then spend class memorizing lines. With much difficulty, the woman was transferred. Not fired, transferred. Another principal. and another set of kids, inherited that teacher's incompetence. Typically, already struggling schools get these teachers dumped on them.

Madeline Cartwright, a former principal of Blaine Elementary School in North Philadelphia - a principal with the "magic touch," The New York Times said - knows this problem well. She has been frustrated by bad teachers. But as a former staff representative for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, she also knows why it is virtually impossible to get rid of them.

"If a principal rates a teacher `unsatisfactory'," Cartwright says, "they get the wrath of the union. We would get the teachers together and say, `Her today, you tomorrow. You better support us today so we'll support you tomorrow.'" At first, when Cartwright spoke to a teacher who had been given a bad rating, she would ask: "Why were you rated poorly?" But she was dressed down by the union president. "He told me it was my job to defend that teacher no matter what. I had one man [who] was having a love affair with a 15-year-old girl who could neither speak nor hear. I said to the president, `There's no way I'm going to represent that teacher.' I said 'I can't go. Send somebody else.'" And so they did. "The union stand is the same as a lawyer - defend everybody," Cartwright says.

This problem runs deeper than just bad teachers. Even good ones have no outside incentive to do their job well, because they can't be fired or even seriously disciplined.

The first step toward a solution is to eliminate tenure. William Bosher, state superintendent of Virginia's public schools, wants to do just that. "This is something that polls show 70 percent of Americans support," he says. "As we talk about student accountability, accountability for schools, then we need to look at every aspect." Bosher would offer new teachers a year-long contract, then, if they do well, a three-year contract, and after that, five-year contracts.

Throughout the country, unions use their formidable political clout to perpetuate the status quo. In 1994, the National Education Association (NEA) gave $2.27 million to Democratic candidates for Congress, out-spending even the National Rifle Association. More to the point, the donations flow generously in state politics where the laws that matter get written. The Virginia Education Association killed Bosher's reform in the state legislature. In a number of states, from California to Kentucky, reformers are moving to reform tenure laws and are meeting the same resistance.

No one knows unions' fearsome power better than Bill Clinton who, as Arkansas governor in 1983, proposed that teachers pass a simple competency test as a condition of recertification. The Arkansas Education Association was enraged, calling tests "insulting and degrading." They lobbied the legislature, staged candlelight vigils, and closed down the schools to hold a massive rally in Little Rock. Considering how basic the test was, the furor is mystifying. One math question was as follows:

In preparation for the sixth grade graduation ceremony, the school custodian determines that the school has 1,200 folding chairs. However, the kindergarten classes will use 240 of those chairs for their graduation. How many chairs will be left over for the sixth graders? A: 950; B: 960; C: 1060; D: 1,440. (By the way, teachers who failed the test could take it again - multiple times.)

Unions, of course, have won many deserved benefits for teachers who are generally overworked, underpaid, and underappreciated. And the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) has shown more willingness than the larger NEA to tackle once taboo issues - such as the importance of discipline in the classroom. But even the AFT continues to defend incompetents. For groups that are supposed to be teachers' advocates, this makes no sense. Bad teachers make for more work and less respect for the good ones.

Teachers do have a legitimate worry about principals abusing their power to hire and fire; so why not involve teachers in personnel decisions? There's also no question that some job security for teachers encourages academic freedom. But a five year contract gives considerable security. Or make it six - then teachers would have the same job guarantee as United States senators, who have the longest tenure of any elected federal official and among whom there is no shortage of the spirited disagreement that academic freedom is meant to stimulate.

III. GREAT EXPECTATIONS

Gertrude Williams, the principal of the Barclay School in Baltimore, had an idea: She wanted to adopt the rigorous curriculum and methodology of a nearby private academy, the Calvert School, for her inner-city public school students. The city superintendent, Richard Hunter, resisted, calling it a "rich man's curriculum." Presumably, Hunter meant that Barclay's students - 90 percent of whom are black, 82 percent of whom are poor enough to receive free school lunches - wouldn't respond to a rigorous program in math, science, history, literature, and art.

The program was adopted and the Barclay kids proved Hunter wrong. Before the new curriculum was put in place, they tested in the 20th and 30th percentiles, scores typical of troubled urban schools. Now, language scores match those of expensive private schools, with English scores in the 80th percentile and math in the 85th. More prosperous families are moving to enroll their kids in Barclay.

The Barclay experiment is the latest proof that the more that is asked of kids, the better they perform. This is age-old practice at prep schools such as Exeter. But among inner-city kids, standards and expectations are low. One Department of Education study showed that the same work that earns a C in the average suburban school would earn an A in the average inner-city school. By giving youths only remedial and vocational courses, we practically guarantee that they will not excel.

"We expected less of our young people," A Nation at Risk concluded, "and they gave it to us." This is true not only in troubled schools. More than a third of high school graduates take no math course more advanced than basic math or introductory algebra. Only 17 percent of blacks and only 26 percent of whites take any physics in high school. Is it any surprise that American students, compared to those in other industrialized countries, rank near the bottom in math and science?

In Catholic schools, tougher standards are old hat. Rare is the graduate of a parochial high school who doesn't leave with four years of English, three of math, and two of science. And whether in the suburbs or inner city, parochial schools take the same students as nearby public schools and produce far better results. At Nativity Preparatory School in Roxbury, Mass., teacher Michael Mayo's students attend four more hours of school a day than their public school peers. But it pays off in intellectual growth. "They get a lot of crap for putting on a tie and going to school for 10 hours a day," Mayo says. "But they keep coming. Even on Saturdays. They like it."

High standards aren't about curricular bells and whistles; they're about ensuring that high school graduates have the basic skills and knowledge to be productive workers and informed citizens. Some public schools are replacing remedial education with exciting, demanding work - and students are responding. Althea Woods, principal of the 99th Street School in the Watts section of Los Angeles, has implemented a program dubbed "accelerated schools." As a former regional consultant, Woods recalls seeing "slower" kids numbed by boring tasks such as copying down definitions from the dictionary. "Our staff came together," she says, "and decided that all of our children were gifted and talented and that we would teach them that way." At 99th St., sixth graders study operas and Shakespeare. And a school that was once one of the city's worst now has to turn parents away.

If high standards are vital in academics, they are also necessary for behavior. In an Alexandria, Kentucky high school, Spanish teacher Fran Cook was repeatedly threatened by a student, Andy Bray, who would blurt out, "I am going to kill you, Mrs. Cook." Cook once intercepted a letter from Bray to his friends: "To frighten teacher," it read, "speak each day about different methods of murder." His punishment? Forty minutes of detention. Cook ultimately had to file a civil lawsuit and seek a restraining order, which she won. The school began expulsion hearings only after a storm of publicity.

Fran Cook isn't alone. An American Educator survey found that 36 percent of teachers in inner-city junior high schools, and 11 percent in the suburbs, have been threatened by a student. "Thugs ... run the schools," one Connecticut teacher told Public Agenda. Other teachers echo this opinion; more than 80 percent think removing chronic misbehavers would substantially improve kids' education. Discipline problems also send good teachers fleeing to private or parochial schools, which mete out real discipline and thus have more orderly classrooms.

School officials slack off on discipline partly out of good intentions: They want to keep students in school rather than cast them out to a crueler world. There's also financial self-interest: Schools don't want to lose funds they receive on a per-pupil basis. And then there's the fear of lawsuits from aggrieved parents. Disruptive students often get off for the same reason as bad teachers - schools don't want to spend years in court defending their decision. Principals need to be able to exercise discretion, and that means changing the law to shield them from endless lawsuits. If a principal shows a pattern of poor judgment, he should be fired. Otherwise, he should be able to act in the school's best interest.

IV. INVOLVING PARENTS

When Madeline Cartwright became principal of Blaine Elementary in North Philadelphia, she could count on two hands the number of parents who regularly attended meetings. After coaxing parents to get involved, her 300-person auditorium would overflow at meetings. Almost immediately, more students began to attend school regularly. Three years later, Blaine was named the district's most academically improved school.

Today, Madeline Cartwright earns $4,000 a speech to talk to educators about her work at Blaine. But when she offered her services for free to her grandson's school in Haverford Township, a well-to-do suburb, she was ignored - except for being asked to make cookies for a bake sale.

Parental involvement is perhaps the most important determinant of a student's success in school. Unfortunately for American public schools, Cartwright's grandson's school is the norm and Blaine is the exception. In many schools, parents are made to feel unwelcome. Teachers and principals are too busy, or they fear parents will challenge their authority or call them on their shortcomings.

Althea Woods's "accelerated" school is a model of what parental involvement can do. "Our parents will just do anything," she says. They prepare bulletin boards in the hall, tutor children, and monitor playgrounds. "Once we were short a custodian and the parents said, `Oh no, this school is not going to turn into one of those filthy places.' So they came with their Lysol and their mops, and that lasted for three weeks until we got a custodian."

Woods's parents are also more engaged with their own children at home. They attend workshops on how to help their kids with homework. The kids benefit not just from having their parents' attention but also from the wide range of adults who volunteer in the schools. When a civil servant or an office manager or an engineer comes to school, students are exposed to worlds they might never have seen.

That's why not just parents, but the entire community needs to get involved. At Covina Elementary School in Los Angeles, Principal Ron Iannone invited the town Rotary club, university medical students, and others to volunteer in his school. Now Covina is cleaner, safer, and rich with options from day care to after-school programs. Schools need an explosion in this kind of volunteer activity, particularly for labor-intensive services like tutoring. Unfortunately, too few of us recognize the need. A recent Washington Post story touted the value of tutors to "fix things that are broken [and] expand a child's horizon." But the paper only mentioned volunteer tutors in passing, smugly assuming that kids who can't afford fees of up to $40 an hour don't deserve the same help as those who can.

V. ENOUGH MONEY TO DO THE JOB

At a 1990 Education Summit, then-President George Bush proclaimed that the U.S. "lavishes unsurpassed resources on ... schooling." Unsurpassed by whom? This country spends less on primary and secondary education than 13 of the 16 major industrialized countries. In 1995, the General Accounting Office reported that a staggering $112 billion is required to repair facilities and construct new schools for an expanding student population. In Dade County, Florida, for example, The Miami Herald recently found 241 out of 272 schools "cramped beyond capacity, many with twice the number of students they were built to hold."

Shannon Carey, the teacher at Stonehurst Elementary in Oakland, works in a facility that is overcrowded and poorly maintained. Built when it was faddish to have no walls between classes, the school hasn't had funds to build temporary walls. "You can imagine the bedlam," Carey says. "You're having silent reading and the class next door is teaching music. Stuff literally comes flying and hits your kids when there are substitutes." And last year, Carey's school was repeatedly flooded with raw sewage. "I was thinking, This is just East St. Louis.'... But it was in my school, too."

As per President Bush's assertion, conservatives produce piles of academic data to demonstrate that money makes no difference in schooling. But if money doesn't make a difference, why do suburban districts spend ever-more money on schools - sometimes near $20,000 per-pupil per-year? An increasing body of research shows with data what common sense tells us anyway: Money matters. Princeton economists David Card and Alan Krueger, for example, have shown that the more money spent on students' education, the higher their wages are likely to be in the future.

The reasons for the "money doesn't matter" excuse are many: Old folks may not want to spend any money on schools after their kids have graduated. Richer districts want to pretend that money doesn't much matter so they won't be forced to share more of their wealth with poorer neighbors. Public schools have historically been funded through local property taxes - and that has led to dramatic inequities. The "equalization" movement, which seeks to pool tax money at the state level for more equitable redistribution to schools, is a welcome step toward alleviating often-glaring discrepancies in teacher salaries, school facilities, and supplies.

A more delicate problem in school funding is die special education programs that have gobbled up an increasing share of school budgets. Federal legislation requires states to provide education to "all handicapped children," but federal funds cover only a tiny portion of the cost (about 7 percent). In New York City, the average spending per pupil is $7,918. But full-time special education students get an average of $23,598, while students in regular classes receive only $5,149. One student with cerebral palsy receives $100,000 worth of annual services, including a motorized wheelchair and special school and home services. The school board picks up the bill.

It is painful to balance the interests of a needy and vulnerable minority against those of the general population. But should physically and mentally disabled students have an entitlement to massive spending while students whose needs may be less obvious get shortchanged? For poorer families, the state does have a responsibility to care for seriously ill kids, but schools should not bear the burden. And families with the money to pay for a disabled child's special education should do so. At Washington, D.C.'s Lab School, highly regarded for its work with the learning disabled, a majority of students live in affluent neighborhoods. But as Thomas Toch reported last year in The Washington Post, 90 percent of the school's funding comes from D.C. and Maryland taxpayers. One husband and wife whose child is projected to cost die District $275,000 are both partners in large law firms and, Toch notes, likely earn upwards of 800,000 a year.

Money alone, of course, won't cure public schools' ills. Liberals like Jonathan Kozol, whose invaluable book Savage Inequalities documented abhorrent school conditions from East St. Louis to L.A., reject criticism of bad teachers, bureaucrats, and low standards. Those who criticize school bureaucracies, Kozol writes, lack "courage or originality." More money, he implies, is all that's needed. But Kozol's own stories show otherwise. In the South Bronx, for example, the kids went without writing paper or books partly because of school board members who were stealing supplies.

Lacking proper funds is not an excuse to do nothing now; many of the reforms outlined here - such as changing certification and tenure rules and expelling disruptive students - would cost nothing. But the public should meet schools halfway, giving them resources enough to truly excel, not just scrape by.

Those in wealthy districts may be tempted to dismiss the need for more money - and the threat to schools posed by bad teachers, bloated bureaucracies and too-low standards. But suburban schools, while clearly better-off, are not immune to the coming challenge to the public schools. After a wide-ranging series of polls and interviews, Public Agenda found support for public schools to be "lingering, but precarious" - and that's everywhere, not just in poor areas. Employers don't trust high school diplomas; parents don't believe their kids are learning even basic skills in reading and math; international comparisons show the U.S. lagging. Not every school system is in equal danger. But the system as a whole is clearly on the edge of a cliff.

The time is nearing when even the most loyal supporters of public schools will look for other options. Privatization - contracting out schools to for-profit companies - has not enjoyed notable success so far. But the idea of vouchers - giving parents the money to send their children to public, private, or religious schools - is gaining momentum.

In theory, vouchers would reward the best schools and force marginal ones to close. In practice, vouchers could mean a government subsidy to wealthy parents with kids at Exeter. Vouchers would also further balkanize schools; more middle class parents would flee, leaving poorer kids in a system with less money and less public support. But there is one form of voucher that makes sense now. Designed for poor kids stuck in the most desperate public school systems, it could only be used at schools that would accept it as full payment, and so those rich parents couldn't use it to help pay Exeter tuition. This is not a permanent solution: It still carries the danger of balkanization and does not solve the problem of kids whose parents are either too busy or too uncaring to "shop" for schools. But it would provide an opportunity for promising kids to escape to, say, a good parochial school.

This kind of voucher would also serve as a warning to all who defend the status quo. Teachers' unions, education schools, and administration bureaucracies have tenaciously resisted change and need to be forcibly reminded of the realistic possibility that, soon, there may be no status quo to defend.

The five principles outlined above could turn the schools around. It would take the zeal and commitment and money usually reserved for wartime. But it would be worth it. For reasons both moral and practical, schools are the country's backbone: To accept that one child should have less of a chance in life because they are born in the wrong school district, or consigned to a lazy teacher, is to reject the notion that everyone deserves an equal chance to get ahead. And substandard education spells economic death for our future.

This is a war we can't afford to lose. As society segregates further into privileged and disadvantaged enclaves, as it retreats into the isolation engendered by technological progress, the need for the "public" - public spaces, public discourse, and public schools - becomes ever more urgent. That sense of urgency should energize parents, teachers, principals, students - and all the rest of us - to demand good teachers, slim bureaucracies, and high standards. It should move us to care, and to act, before a nation at risk becomes a country at sea.

What Public Schools Can Learn From Nativity Prep

A few weeks ago, Mayor Tom Menino asked Boston to judge him by a single, severe criterion: the performance of our public schools. The speech was surprising and exciting: It's rare for any politician to give education its proper place at the top of our civic priorities, never mind stake his reputation on it. Yet by the time he had finished outlining his plans, the most salient proposal, the one that The Boston Globe called "the most dramatic promise," was to put a computer in every classroom by the year 2004.

Menino is setting himself up for failure. No doubt computer literacy will be increasingly important in the 21st century, but a computer in every class will never guarantee good schools. No classroom needs a computer - or posters, overhead projectors, or VCRs. It might sound dull to anyone who doesn't teach, but there aren't any tricks to education. All too often, the innovations that excite politicians, pundits, and parents have no connection to the day-to-day operation of a school. "Everybody's running around talking about education," says Rev. Al Hicks, the principal at the school where I work. "But we got this thing figured out a long time ago. It's just a matter of doing it."

I teach at Nativity Preparatory School in Roxbury, an inner-city neighborhood in Boston. The Jesuit school has 58 students from fifth through eighth grade, all boys, most of them from improverished families. The kids come to school for 10 hours a day; they trek back for two hours of study hall at night. They show up at 7:40 a.m. to clean the school before the first bell rings, and I've never heard a complaint. When these kids graduate, they'll go to top schools in Boston and New England, many with full scholarships.

Nativity's success may seem miraculous. But seen from the inside, it is surprisingly simple: Hard work, discipline, love, and a size small enough to make these things possible. There are only 14 of us on the staff; we're all teachers, even the principal and executive director. The kids know us as well as they know their own families. Father Bill Cullen calls himself "Old Fat Father," and the kids - kids who would have sunk in big public schools under the weight of personal and family problems - put their heads on his belly and hug him. They bring up their heaviest, most private concerns in public prayers every morning because they know that we're on their side.

I teach sixth grade reading and language arts. A two-hour class might be a discussion of a novel. Most recently, it was Mildred Taylor's Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, the story of a Southern black family during the Depression. My kids have a tough time reading. But they did grow up listening, and I work with that. I read out loud to them and talk over the material. That gets them excited to do a reading assignment a night.

Since we have no secretary or janitorial staff, the teachers and kids pitch in to run every aspect of the school. This means work for me that teachers' unions in a public school would holler over - answering phones, for example. But the absence of bureaucracy means that I have no paperwork, no requirements other than keeping the place running and teaching the kids.

Nativity not only foster academic excellence and a feeling of community, but something even more remarkable: Our students, despite the misery around them, are usually happy. They're comfortable in school; they're free to be nerds. Their achievement breeds self-esteem, self-worth, and all the other touchy-feely issues that bigger schools waste so much sweat trying to make happen.

The school pays teachers just a small stipend, yet we come from the best colleges in the country to give long hours to our kids. Why are we here rather than in more lucrative or prestigious professions? The answer is simple: We love teaching. It is an unbelievably satisfying, deeply thoughtful experience.

Why are we here rather than at a public school? Unfortunately, most public schools won't let you in the door without extensive coursework in education classes. Most teachers at Nativity are under 25 years old and have never taken an education course in their lives. I got about 20 hours of training before heading into the classroom. Like my colleagues, I'm doing fine - and getting better the more I teach.

The size, structure, and atmosphere of the school also matter. Unlike public schools, weekly faculty meetings at Nativity aren't tied up with battles between teachers, administration, and the wider school system; instead, we're able to discuss each student, one by one, and figure out what he needs from us. In an environment with firm discipline and high expectations, teachers can affirm and challenge children.

Nativity has its limits: Because it subsists on donations, it reaches a very small number of students. But the conditions that make Nativity a success - good teachers, small size, minimal red tape discipline, and love - can be replicated in public schools. In some places, they already have. Not every kid can come to Nativity, but if education reformers learn from its success, every kid can get a Nativity education.
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Title Annotation:a plan to save the school system: includes a related article on Nativity Preparatory School in Roxbury, Massachusetts
Author:Shenk, Joshua Wolf
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Mar 1, 1996
Words:7514
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