After working in a private school for just two weeks, it has become painfully obvious to me that we have a crisis in public education. It is something I wanted to deny while I was part of public education. That was before I had the first-hand opportunity to compare and contrast.
My personal observations, having been employed for six years in Georgia public schools, are as follows:
- Administrators are afraid of punishing students.
- Parents don’t generally care, until their child really screws up (by which time, it’s too late), and then they bully the schools.
- Teachers and students live in fear of violence in many schools.
- Students are not properly tracked.
- Not enough teaching and learning is taking place.
Let me dissect these issues point by point. First of all, administrators are afraid of punishing students. How else can you explain the fact that students are able to threaten to slit a teacher’s throat and get away with it? Our society is growing so litigious. Instead of teaching children there are consequences when they do not behave as they are supposed to, we are teaching them that if they (or their parents) squawk loudly enough about their rights, we back down. In the short run, the administration decides not to fight the issue. In the long run, they teach students that they will roll over under pressure. Then you have things like “No Child Left Behind,” which measures a school’s progress. If a school fails to make “Adequate Yearly Progress,” then they first have the opportunity to correct it and turn it around. If they can’t, then they must allow their students to transfer to schools that are “performing” better. It is surprisingly easy to fail to make Adequate Yearly Progress. Please do yourself a favor; educate yourself on No Child Left Behind. Let me offer you a scenario. You have an influx of Hispanic students at your school. They don’t know English. You have to test them, because 95% of your students must participate in state assessments in Reading/Language Arts. Predictably, they don’t do well. There are more than 40 students in this group — “Hispanic” students. As a whole, they do not meet or exceed the state’s Annual Measurable Objective for proficiency in Reading/Language Arts because many of them are new to the country. You have just failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress, and your school is now on the “Needs Improvement” list. I am not picking on an ethnic group here — please understand. I am describing a very real situation affecting school districts in the area where I live. You can write your own ticket up here if you are certified to teach ESOL. What does this have to do with Administrators being afraid of punishing students? Well, it’s hard to control something like an influx of immigrants throwing off the testing. Administrators can have some modicum of control over attendance, though, in that they can avoid suspending students. High rates of absenteeism can cause a school to fail to make AYP. Absences incurred because of suspension are counted. This was a quandary my former principal had. I can see her position: she’s between a rock and a hard place. She didn’t want to let the kids get away things. She would have preferred to suspend them. But she couldn’t afford to. It might cause the school to fail to make AYP.
Second, parents do not generally care. Elementary Open House nights are vibrant, people-filled events. By the time students reach middle school, the numbers of parents who participate in their child’s education begin to drop off until by high school, almost no one comes. I have had Open House nights when no parents from one of my classes showed up. Interestingly, it tended to be parents of gifted and/or honors students who did come well into high school. Correlation? You’d better believe it. Then something happens. Johnny has a fight. All of a sudden, the parent is Johnny’s biggest advocate, trying to get him out of a real punishment — see the paragraph above, re: litigiousness. Or, conversely, Johnny turns in crappy work that the parent expects the teacher to reward with an inflated, meaningless grade because the parent is going to raise hell rather than respect the teacher’s expertise.
Teachers and students live in fear of violence in schools. In the public schools where I taught, fights occurred with alarming regularity. Teachers were basically expected to break these fights up. I did it once . If I hadn’t, I’m pretty sure there would have been dire consequences. Unfortunately, the rules regarding how students are punished for such violence appear to be arbitrary and inconsistenly enforced. Students are punished for defending themselves when someone hits them first. One of the boys in the “fight” I broke up did not defend himself — that is, he did not hit the other student. He was punished anyway. What the hell is a kid supposed to do? Talk about damned if you do, damned if you don’t. In the last twenty years or so, there have been an alarming number of cases of mass murder in public schools. Formerly the domain of the “inner-city school, ” violence has spread to every public school in the nation. I would be extremely surprised to learn there is a public school that has not had a violent confrontation between students or between a student and teacher. Each of the public schools where I worked had several of the latter. As to the former, who could keep count?
Schools are not properly tracked. In some cases, students or parents choose a child’s track. They are not always realistic. Some students need more assistance. There is no shame in getting the help you need. Lower level classes can offer that. It does not preclude an opportunity to go to college. The student might need to set his/her sights lower in terms of college choices or take lower level college courses. We make a mistake trying to tell everyone that they are the same. Yes, we have equality. We have the same opportunities. Well, at least we give lip service to that notion. However, the short story “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut demonstrates clearly what happens when we try to make “everything equal” by handicapping those who are more able. Yet this cautionary tale is quickly becoming a frightening reality. We have students in “college prep.” classes that are headed for college — they’re bright, articulate, and able to handle the workload. We also have students who cannot do work at that level. They just can’t. We slap the college prep. seal on their diploma. They get into college based on inflated grades — something teachers are pressured to do by administrators and parents — and their professors flunk everything they do. They just can’t hack it. Let me make something really clear here. Not everyone is able to do college-level work. Not everyone should go to college. We have constructed our society in such a way that people must get college degrees to get jobs that they don’t need college degrees to do. It devalues the college degree, in a sense, when we try to say everyone should go. So we have bright students who are being held behind and not getting what they need because their lower-level peers are improperly placed in college prep. classes that are too advanced for them.
Not enough teaching and learning is taking place. This is because teachers spend too much time disciplining students. It got so bad where I worked, that “classroom management” was virtually all I did. I didn’t really feel like I was doing any teaching. I had a classmate in my English Education classes in college who did his student teaching in a very run-down, poor, problem-ridden school. He concluded that he still wanted to teach, but he did not want to be a cop or a social worker; therefore, he was only looking for jobs in private schools. He found one, and he is still at that same school today. I have been hopping from school to school for the past 7 years since I graduated, even concluding at one point that I never wanted to teach again, because I limited myself to public schools. I was very discouraged. I know I’m a good teacher, but frankly, I’m not a good social worker, and I’m a terrible cop. I never wanted to do those jobs. I can lead a great discussion about literature. I can teach you how to be a better writer. But I am not good at trying to figure out how to get you to stay in your seat, refrain from cussing out your neighbor, or prevent you from smacking the snot out of your former buddy. To me, that is something parents are supposed to instill in their children — the ability to focus and listen to the teacher, to be respectful of the teacher, not to fight. They’re not doing it, folks. The parents are dropping the ball. A long time ago, if a child got in trouble at school, he could count on getting in a double dose of trouble at home. Not anymore. Randal is an excellent teacher. He has only ever taught in private schools. I can’t see him in a public school setting. His students would never let him get to the point where he could teach. He’s a little like me that way. It makes me wonder how many great teachers are being chased away from the profession because they didn’t sign on to be cops.
Until I was desperate to find a job, I did not consider private school an option. I thought that private schools did not pay well enough. I think we all understand economics enough to know that with three kids, I couldn’t entertain the idea of a $10,000-15,000 per year pay cut, which was the range I thought I was looking at. Not so. I am actually making a little bit more than I did last year in the public school system. Now I feel like the scales have fallen from my eyes. Private schools are set up to succeed where public schools fail.
Administrators are not afraid to punish students. They rarely have to, from what I’ve seen. But in general, the attitude is that the students are paying for the privilege to attend. If they are going to be asses, then they can leave. Period. Parents have little recourse where this is concerned. No one has a right to attend a private school. Public schools must contend with the law there: everyone has a right to a free public education.
Parents care. Huge portions of their hard-earned money are going towards providing an education for their children. They insist that their children work hard. There is this notion that “I’m sinking nearly $15,000 a year in your education (the cost of tuition at my school). You’d better do your work, and I’m going to communicate with your teachers to make sure you’re doing what you’re supposed to.” If the child flunks out, they have to leave. Period. Just like college. Parents can’t bully a private school into inflating grades or educating a student who will not do the work. Sing it with me folks: no one has a right to attend a private school.
I have not seen one single incident of violence in my school. Violence may have occurred in other private schools. I cannot imagine any other outcome of such an event than that the student was expelled. If students fought at my school, they would be. So, knowing there are real consequences for violence, the students do not engage in it. I suppose it doesn’t hurt that they’ve been raised right either. I have only been there two weeks, but I just can’t picture the students at my school fighting. They are a real community. They care about each other. They’re nice to each other.
The focus in private schools is on academics. My school is trying out a lower level college prep. course for the first time. All of the previous graduates have gone to college — 100% of them. However, we are admitting students for the first time who need something extra — more help with writing, more help with reading comprehension and analysis, etc. — than the typical college prep. student. Rather than hold the typical college prep. student back, a new track was created. Students were placed there according to assessments of their abilities. If the parents didn’t like it, my principal explained that it was designed to help the students, that it was a parallel curriculum that would still prepare students for college. Implicit, I’m sure, was the idea that if the parent didn’t like it, they were free to enroll their child elsewhere.
Finally, I have been blessed with the opportunity to really teach. I am finding that I do genuinely love it — the interaction with students. The “oh, I see!” when I explain something. The feeling of imparting my expertise. Like I said, 7 years into my teaching career, I am finally doing more teaching than discipline. It’s been amazing. If you bothered to follow some of the links, you might have found that almost every one of the problems in my bullet list above were issues I had to deal with on one single day when I taught at a public middle school.
What is really difficult is that while I see where private schools have got it right, I’m not sure how we can improve public schools. I fear that we have allowed things to go too far to be brought back at this point. And I am wishing like hell I had the kind of money to send my children to private schools. It is an amazing gift my students are receiving. In my opinion, it’s a gift all students should be entitled to: a solid academic education in a safe environment.