Wednesday, January 19, 2011
This afternoon we have a piece from someone near and dear to the heart of the editor. (Does not imply we automatically agree.) This article is from a North Jersey teacher and thinker, a person who has inhabited the front lines of their topic. Without further ado, we present Charles Phillips.
Lately, due in large part to the desperate fiscal condition of many states, there has been a national focus on the cost of public education. The cost per pupil has grown over the last half century, as the mandate of the public schools has grown, and politicians would like education to cost less than it does. What worries me most about this is that many of the people making decisions about public education know nothing about education. This has been made abundantly clear by the comments of Cathie Black, the new school Chancellor of New York City. Just this month, she has said two alarming things. In response to rapidly growing enrollment, she quipped to parents and reporters that “birth control would help us.” When detailing her thoughts on cutting costs in the schools, she said “What we need to do is hire good teachers and train them to handle bigger classes.” These two statements betray a thorough ignorance of the realities of public education.
In the reality of public education in America, you must take all comers, regardless of their abilities or their home life, and you must educate them, not warehouse them. This means that you will have to assign meaningful work to students that will teach them real skills. You will have to grade their work thoughtfully, and help them understand where they are deficient and how to improve. Teachers do not just “handle” bigger classes, they also have to manage that additional load of grading that those students produce, the increased parent phone calls and emails, and the added mandatory paperwork that must be done for each student.
As a New Jersey high school English teacher, I am already working 60 – 75 hours per week. My student load has grown this year to 115 students, as we have lost faculty due to budget cuts. We have also been forced to lay off a librarian, computer tech staff, and all security personnel. I have read about schools with class sizes of 40 or 45. If this was to happen in NJ, I would feel sorry for my students. More students will not mean more work for me, because I am already doing everything I can. That is the nature of the job – it expands to fill your life. If I have 30% more students, they will be assigned 30% less work. I will stop allowing them to rewrite essays, even though I consider this the best way to improve writing. I will not want to do this, but I will have no choice. I have to sleep. During the school year that is how nearly all of my free time is spent, and I sleep about six hours a night on weeknights. I am doing everything I can. As far as I can tell, we all are.
American students are often compared unfavorably to students in other countries. This comparison is absurd for many reasons. When it comes to expenditure, public schools in other countries have no sports programs, many have no special education programs, and in some countries students rely entirely on existing public transportation – no yellow busses with their expensive fuel. With regard to test scores, by the time foreign students are taking the standardized tests used for comparison, many have been weeded out, sent to trade schools or the military. This does not happen in America. All of these factors combine to make American schools look quite expensive and ineffective. Try to remove sports or special education programs from American schools, however, and you will face a harsh backlash. Tell parents that their child will not be able to attend college, that he or she is not smart enough, and they will tell you that it is their right to do so. Vilify teachers and attack their pay and pensions, as New Jersey’s governor Chris Christie has, and you will apparently meet only scant resistance.
Governor Christie has attacked teachers on numerous fronts. He has said that we do not care about children, as he cuts funding for public schools while his own children attend expensive private schools. He has attacked tenure, as has Cathie Black in NYC, saying that it amounts to a “job for life,” and that teachers “can’t be fired.” This is absolutely false. In the school where I teach, two tenured teachers have been fired in the last five years. Neither of them did anything criminal, they just weren’t doing their jobs well. This is rare, perhaps because those of us who become teachers do it not because we are looking for an easy or a “guaranteed” job (and certainly not because we are looking to make easy money), but because we care about children and we love what we teach. It is rare that a tenured teacher needs to be fired, but sometimes it has to happen. When it has to, it does. Take tenure away and it will be very easy to focus on the bottom line, fire all experienced teachers, and staff schools entirely with new and inexperienced (though cheap) faculty.
My son graduated from college two years ago, with a bachelor’s degree, and landed a job in retail management with a “big box” store. He is now, after two years on the job, making what I earn after eleven years of teaching. I am not complaining about my income, but I am comforted by the idea that if I was to get truly fed up with my job and its endless demands (as I often am before a holiday or in June) I can leave and make more elsewhere, probably. I do not want to do this, as I love my job, but if I my income continues to erode, as it has this year, or the demands continue to grow, as they have every year since I began teaching, I may be driven out of the occupation entirely. And this is what I fear.
I have often heard the argument made that if you want competent doctors, you have to pay them well, yet when one makes this argument with regard to teachers it is dismissed out of hand. People say “That’s not why people get into teaching!” This is true, because teaching has never been known as a high-paying profession, like medicine. Instead teaching has been a secure job with a pension and health benefits. You won’t get rich, but you’ll make a decent living, have health insurance, and someday be able to retire with a pension. All that is under attack, and I fear that this could have devastating effects on education. I am afraid that competent, passionate teachers will be driven out of the profession because they simply will not work this hard for less and less each year, watching their hard work being diluted by increased demands. What we will be left with will be overworked teachers who are forced to warehouse students during the school day because class sizes have exploded. They will be chronically disgruntled because of their poor income, and many will have to have second jobs, virtually eliminating their time to prepare lessons and grade assignments – tasks that extend long beyond the school day.
These educators will still be taken to task for not raising the skill level of children who grow up in houses that contain not a single book, where the parents tell them that reading and school are a waste of time, where they are free to play video games until three or four in the morning, where the parents are alcoholics, drug addicts, mentally ill or also working two jobs to try to make ends meet. Businesses will also complain that high school graduates lack the communication and problem-solving skills required by business. It will be assumed that this is entirely the schools’ fault since, after all, they are in charge of educating them. Let’s hope that the same rounds of budget cuts are being executed in Europe, China and India.