This will probably be my last blog for TeachForUs. It has been three months since I left teaching and TFA. As I wrote previously, I had a family problem that required us to re-engineer our lives to save our son. Since moving to Oklahoma, he went off the deep end and we had to act quickly and decisively or he was going to end up in the juvenile correction system.
I’m happy to report that our effort and sacrifices paid off. Our son turned the corner away from the path of misery toward one of happy success. The key to that change was getting him out of public school. To do this, one of us had to come home. We had been able to live very comfortably on the salary of a teacher and a nurse, but to save our son, we decided that my wife would come home and I would return to my old career as an information technology engineer because of it’s higher earning potential. I was fortunate that I had a skill that would permit me to make up for most of the income we’d lose if my wife came home. It has been a period of realignment and adjustment for us all.
Being reflective, as TFA encourages, I have given the process a lot of thought. Education reform has obviously been a front-burner issue for me since joining TFA, but I’m not sure if the opinions formed by my experiences add up to the kind of advocacy TFA hopes for. In the past couple of months, here are the things that have shaped my thinking. Pardon me if I repeat some of the insights I may have voiced earlier, but I might flesh them out a little more here.
First of all, to fix the education system, we’re going to have to dismantle the existing one. No one is going to be willing to do that. No politician, no school board member, no community is going to suggest that. For that reason, I believe it will simply collapse. Public education as we have practiced it in America is going to die. It will collapse because cities are going to collapse financially and education will suffer because of it. Places like Detroit, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, and other urban areas are going to go belly-up financially. When the system fails, parents will organize to find a solution.
That solution won’t be public. It will be private. It will use technology and the market will drive it. Students will use the Internet in something akin to Khan Academy. Many students will get left out of the system because they are poor, homeless, immigrants, or have some other disadvantage. The sad fact is that, for many of them, the outcome won’t be all that different.
Our system is not currently turning out students who are employable in a modern, information-based economy. They are coming out of schools without marketable skills. Many of them are graduating without being able to read or compute and have no idea where their place is in human history. Public education wastes billions of dollars for almost no return on the investment.
There is no saving the current education system. The old “Bolsheviks” who occupy it, handing out daily worksheets to their students would have to go. With the union behind them, that’s not going to happen. Here’s a couple of examples of the senior faculty in my school, which I am sure is not unique.
I routinely covered classes for a teacher who was frequently absent because she had years of vacation and sick days accumulated to burn. She taught an elective class that said “Dance” on the schedule. The students in that class never danced in two years. They sat and made paper airplanes, used their phones, and talked. The class had no music and the teacher had no training in dance. The teacher refused to purchase any music because she didn’t have a budget for it. It mattered little because she was gone half the time. On her desk, the substitute lesson plans were photocopied worksheets that the students were not permitted to write upon. Since the students brought no paper or pencils to the class, they did nothing for that period every day.
I covered another colleagues classes a few times. This was a remedial reading class that appeared to be nicely organized. The first time I covered her class, I looked at the lesson plan book, which was required to have several days of lesson plans ready along with an “emergency” lesson plan for a sub to use in case of unscheduled absence. The book had dust on it and the lesson plans were all dated from two years earlier. In other words, the lesson plan book was a prop. It was there to check off the box requiring that it be there, but it was not used.
One of the kids in that class came up to me and brought me a folder saying that this is what they were working on. It was a manila folder with a worksheet in it and a short reading assignment. The reading assignment was a religious comic book, the kind put out by evangelical Christian churches. I was stunned. The lady was having the kids read sectarian religious material. Now I understood why the students I had in my class that had been in her class the previous year still read three to four years below grade level.
It’s no wonder the kids rebelled when rigorous content was provided to them. Throughout their entire education, few teachers had ever required them to do any real work.
In a student culture where fights, bullying, and sexual harassment was common, some of our colleagues were assaulted, threatened, and had property stolen. Several new non-TFA teachers quit my last year before I had to leave. An unidentified newbie brought the culture to the attention of the local newspaper, which ran a story about the violence in the school. The senior “worksheet” teachers rallied around the principal as he chastised us all for the actions of thw one whistleblower. They told us that we new TFA teachers had poor classroom management skills. In other words, the school’s violent culture was our fault. A few days before I left, a student was tasered by the school cop. Two weeks after I resigned, our principal was fired.
I deeply respected the energy, idealism, and dedication of my fellow TFA teachers. If teachers alone could fix the problem, I’d say we should turn the entire education system over to TFA. However, teachers can’t fix the achievement gap. It’s a family problem and a culture problem. To save a child, it takes serious parental sacrifices. I know this because we had to make serious sacrifices to save our child. We had to give up half our income, sell a car, and change careers. It took that level of sacrifice to put enough positive energy to reverse the problems of one single student, our son.
Thus every single parent of a child in a failing school needs to do something similar. They need to pull their child from the failing school and take responsibility for their child’s future. If they live in a drug- and violence-infested neighborhood, they need to pack up and go elsewhere. It’s up to parents to save their children and not leave it for the government to do. The life expectancy of those governmental systems is short.
There is also a moral component to the crisis in education. Education cannot be taught in a morals-neutral environment. Churches need to step up and begin using their facilities to educate the youth in their congregations. At the most basic level, there is a need to instill accountability in every student and their families. Children are not being taught that lying, stealing, cheating, and fraud are bad. Parents are not doing their jobs in this regard either. Churches need to teach parents to stay faithful to their spouses, to be sober, and to be self-reliant.
Churches have to protect their integrity, too. They have to step up and do this without government funding because the government will restrict what they can teach and say. This might mean that the megachurch pastor will not get to earn a six-figure salary. The soloists in the choir, the organist, and the youth leaders might have to forego a salary. Churches are going to have to choose between God and Mammon in order to save the children’s future.
The path to reforming education doesn’t involve nationalizing it. Common Core, as well-intended as it is, won’t do it. It has to be localized and privatized. In the 21st century, there is no good reason for children to be herded around like veal calves into the stalls, spending six to eight hours a day in classes. Instead of spending thousands of dollars per kid, give them a computer, an Internet connection, a set of objectives, and a path to get a good job learning from experts in their field. Why not have them learn biology online from a biologist instead of a teacher with an education degree? Why not let corporate America figure out how to create opportunities and mentor children to qualify for high-paying jobs they’re having trouble filling? Why not let unions start up their own schools to produce skilled tradesmen and women?
To conclude and summarize my Teach For America experience, I’d like to use a recent email from one of my readers. She asked me several questions about leaving the organization. Did I feel supported through the process of leaving? Yes, I did feel supported by TFA through the process. There was a lot less resistance to my leaving than I expected to have. The biggest pain has been paying back the transition assistance money they gave me because our income is a lot less now that my wife came home to homeschool our son.
Do I regard moving to join TFA as a mistake, given the impact it had on my family? I don’t regard moving to do TFA as a mistake now, though when our son was in the midst of his trials, I did wonder if we’d made the wrong decision. In hindsight, I see that he was already starting to head that way before we moved. Moving to Oklahoma just set off something that was probably coming anyway. The crazy thing is that we’re probably stuck in Oklahoma because it would be too expensive to move back. It’s not a bad place, but it might just have to become “home” by default.
Will I come back to TFA to finish the second year? I probably won’t, but I wanted to keep the door open just in case. Looking back, I’m not convinced that teachers will make the difference in the achievement gap. It’s family that does. It will take more than teachers to fix that. Meanwhile, I continue to get my “teaching jones” by teaching a judo club I founded here. It’s a whole world of difference teaching kids who want to learn what you have to teach!
I will always hope that I was able to make transformational change in the lives of some of my students. In my first year, I had one Native American girl whose reading level went up four years in one semester. I had many students whose reading level improved by two years in a semester. In my second year, they switched me to teach on-grade level English and I don’t think I was nearly as effective in the larger class environment. Most of my second-year classes were probably glad to see me go!
I don’t know that I ended up coming to the conclusions that TFA would want me have come to as a result of my experience. I’m more prone to believe that the entire educational system needs to be privatized. Government needs to get out of education and turn it over to organizations that are accountable to parents. The Latino kids in my school were never going to get a fair shake from a government school. Put vouchers into the hands of parents and let them have true school choice. When parents pay for education, quality will improve. When the parents of immigrants and minorities have money in their hands to educate their kids, then they will come to demand value for their dollars. New providers of education will compete for those dollars and competition will improve quality.
I appreciate the opportunity Teach For America gave me to enter the classroom. I would have stayed had life not taken some unfortunate turns. I honor those who sacrifice for the children. Most of all, I miss my friends and colleagues who stood on the front lines with me. Their idealism and energy was infectious, even for a middle-aged man. As they return to grad school or into new assignments, I wish them all the best.