Fixing Schools from the Ground Up

 I am a part-time high school teacher who should be going home right now to pick my own kids from school; trouble is, the school where I work is on lockdown because of a potentially violent police chase in the neighborhood. Given this fact, I have an unusual chunk of time to reflect on my morning, my communities, and my vocation. What strikes me instantly is the recent surge of interest about public education—most of it centered on the idea that to fix education in this country we need to fire bad teachers. I wonder, though, how can even a school full of exceptional teachers be the sole solution to a problem that starts way before the bell, and continues long afterward?

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs comes to mind: at the base, the two fundamental set of needs are the physiological ones (shelter, food, water) and the needs of security–particularly, “The basic need for…a family and a society that protects against hunger and violence.” As I sit here on lockdown with police sirens screaming around me, I wonder, could I ever really be enough to keep my students from this community—a community, by the way, where I myself was raised–focused on learning in school?

If the majority of my students do not have their physiological needs and/or their needs for security met by their families, how can I be held responsible for whether they fail or succeed in school? Fancy psychological theories aside, who repairs a second story window when the first floor has no windows at all? Who strengthens the framing and the roof when the foundation is literally crumbling under their feet? It’s an attempt in futility and no matter the time or energy or money you pour into it, one good storm and the whole house comes tumbling down.

Do I think bad teachers should be fired? Absolutely. Teachers should be present and engaged and active and above all put their students’ needs as their priority in the classroom; any one who doesn’t do that should be gone. I don’t take it personally when people think that part of the problem in schools are teachers who have been allowed to stay in their jobs even though they are completely ineffective; in fact I would wholeheartedly agree that it is just that: part of the problem.

We exist in a system and a society that values teachers below every half-way decent CEO in this country; we live in a state where, to pass the budget, funding for education was cut—the very state that has the 8th strongest economy in the entire world is now 49th in the nation for per pupil spending. You want good teachers? Then you have to rely on more than their compassion and desire to do right by the students to attract them.

This doesn’t just mean pay them better; it means set them up for success. Give them the tools they need to function, staff the classrooms to a reasonable student-teacher ratio; give them administrators and school boards who understand education because they’ve been teachers themselves, not just because they have a K-12 (or even K-26) education. Let me tell you this, if we treated our teachers like Apple treats its employees, you might even be able to pay them less and still they’d perform like superstars.

And if they don’t? Fire them. Not because of test scores (because if that was the barometer, who would teach Special Education students and English language learners?), but fire them because they are not doing everything in their power to help students learn. Create a fair and just system to do so, and then hold everyone accountable—not just teachers, everyone: the principals, the district officials, and the school boards. All of us.

But wait, is that all of us? Are the members of the educational system the only ones responsible for educating children? Are the members of the educational system the one and only indication of which schools, and therefore which students, will succeed?

The answer, remarkable to some I know, is absolutely not.

If my child has trouble with his homework, that’s my job to help him. If my child is struggling with another student in his class, that’s my job to give him the skills to deal with it and then to follow up to make sure his teacher knows and supports him accordingly. I do not expect to call my son’s teacher at 9pm to have her help him with his math nor do I expect my son’s teacher to know at every moment what is happening in the minds and hearts of the 30 students—wait, that’s 36 students—in her room. I am my child’s mother. The buck stops with his father and me, not his teacher.

There is not one parent at my sons’ school who feels differently than I do. There is more parental involvement there than I have ever seen anywhere in my life. Teachers at his school couldn’t be less than great because, if they were, every one would know about it. Many families have only one parent working outside the home, but even the families that do not, or the families with single parents, or the families headed by grandmothers, we all see ourselves as one community working toward the common goal of excellence for our children. You know the other thing? My sons’ school has the among the highest test scores in the state. This is no coincidence.

How come some of the charter schools, even ones in desperately poor areas who serve the most at-risk youth in our nation, work so well? Not because there isn’t a teacher’s union, but because the parent(s) or guardian(s) have to sign a contract that they will be involved; they will volunteer at the school, they will help with the homework, they will not allow the TV to be used on school nights—in effect, they have to PARENT their children. Couple that with the innovation and excitement that goes along with a high quality school of any kind and you have yourself one fantastic education for your child.

We cannot in good conscience (nor in good science) blame what’s happening on the second floor and ignore what’s happening with the foundation. A high quality school is a complete team effort by all stakeholders; it is not a place where, if we just get rid of “bad” teachers, all glory will be restored to American education.

John Legend calls education “…the civil rights issue of our time,” and I agree it is. Trouble is, the success of the civil rights movement of the 60s and 70s wasn’t based on scapegoating and removing one group of people and expecting the rest to fall into place. It was about the community coming together to address the whole scope of complex issues in a meaningful way.

I applaud the start of a very difficult conversation just as I applaud the efforts to confront a system that is in desperate need of repair. Unless we plan to abandon the lure of “easy” answers and really tackle the complexity of the situation, however, we’re doomed to have one gorgeous second floor that inevitably will come crashing down around us.

This is a community problem that requires community intervention. If we don’t do it, we have to hold ourselves just as accountable as every one else.

Copyright 2011 • • All Rights Reserved

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