I’ve seen how public education is being destroyed firsthand, and I can tell you that Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, Congress and presidents past and current are wrong about how to fix it. Instead of attempting to improve the underlying problems, they throw up their hands and blame everything on the teachers.
Our leaders perpetuate the myth that charter schools are a panacea. Instead of investing in public schools, which have to handle myriad special education students, English language learners, and children with serious behavioral issues whom charter schools can eschew, they siphon-off much needed funds from public schools, or shut them down.
According to the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes, while some Charter schools do better than their public counterparts, the majority perform equally, and some do worse. Yet the lie is perpetuated, and apparently, believed by the public.
Charter schools are exempt from the onerous regulations handed down by executives hired by school districts for their business experience, rather than knowledge of education. This unhealthy trend turns public schools into top-down management models in which educators are forced to teach in ways they know to be ineffective, and to spend countless classroom hours on testing, the biggest waste of time and money since new coke.
But charter schools aren’t the only threat too public schools. An even bigger menace comes from those who would make a profit. As long as corporate interests suck up resources meant to educate our kids, public schools will not get the funding they need to actually educate our youth.
From 1997 to 2004, I taught in a high-poverty, high-crime neighborhood in North Philadelphia. Among my students were children who had witnessed the violent deaths of parents; girls raped by step-fathers or their mother’s boyfriends; homeless children; and children whose parents worked long hours at low-paying jobs but still couldn’t afford bus tokens. It was a place where the cultural abyss created by poverty and hardship could make it impossible for learning to take place.
Every morning at 7:30 I entered the deteriorating building and headed for my classroom. Inside, the décor was dingy despite my efforts to decorate with student work and posters, bought with a small allowance from the District, but mostly with my own money. Between the room next door and mine, there was only a falling-apart partition through which not just sound but students themselves traveled, as well as books, spitballs and assorted debris.
At the beginning of the year, we had no books— at least those of us in the English department. The School District waited for “leveling” to occur. Every year, between September and November, hoards of students dropped out. To prepare for this eventuality, the District routinely crammed sixty kids into classes with thirty-three desks. Never mind that sixty students, many of whom clearly didn’t want to be there, sharing one small space, constituted a classroom management horror show.
In addition to the dearth of books, there was hardly any paper, and copying was a logistical nightmare. Neither of the two departments I was a part of had a copy machine. I was on the same floor as the math department, but I kept inadvertently breaking their delicate old machine, so I was banned from using it. I raced from building to building, begging for paper and use of the copier.
After three years of feeling like Sisyphus, I learned how to engage and excite my students, with the help of The Philadelphia Writing Project, (PhilWP) and various education classes. I learned the beauty of teaching to my students’ strengths, and my students responded.
In 2002, when Paul Vallas was appointed CEO in Philadelphia, the race to the bottom began in earnest. Although the Philadelphia Inquirer loved him, and he was lionized for working miracles in Chicago, there were hints that some people, like parents and teachers, weren’t happy. Those stories were ignored by the education reporters.
Vallas promised to bring sweeping changes to the District. His idea was to completely redesign the brand new, and excellent curriculum. He proposed closing many public schools, and hiring for-profit Educational Management Organizations (EMOs) like Chancellor Beacon and Edison to take over. He ordered mountains of testing materials, and we began to spend half of our classroom time teaching from these dull, culturally irrelevant texts.
The students in Philadelphia’s low-income, persistently failing schools didn’t gain, but the EMOs did, and so did Kaplan, the for-profit company hired to provide the testing materials and so-called teacher training.
Students in Philadelphia and all over the United States are being cheated in this rush to punish failing schools instead of improving them. They will be cheated as long as the talking heads continue to demonize teachers and push charter schools while ignoring the real problems and lining the pockets of private enterprises at the expense of public school students.