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Opinion

“What’s wrong with public schools that our kids don’t excel?”

By Mary Bisciaio

Ask The Experts

As a public school teacher, I cringed at the criticism. It was leveled most often in the media, but I heard it from parents and non-educator friends as well.

“What are they teaching kids in public schools today?”

“Why are public schools failing our kids?”

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“Why are graduates unprepared to find a job in the workplace or attend higher education?”

I knew the answer, and I could have battled it out with the critics except I didn’t. At professional development days, I followed the leader, read every new concept in education, examined every new method in education, even adapted a few to my teaching, but the criticism continues today.  After almost thirty years of teaching with programs that have come and gone, with curricula that have been revised and rewritten, and methods that have been tested and discarded, the questions remain.

“What’s wrong with public schools that our kids don’t excel?”

I have the answer. It isn’t profound, but you don’t work as long as I did without seeing the real problem clearly.  Here it is. Are you ready for the answer I’ve kept locked away for years?

My classroom was too crowded.

That’s it, right there, in a meager five words. (Please don’t dismiss me yet.)

I’m not talking about overcrowded classrooms with too many students and little space. I had an exceptionally large classroom that easily accommodated thirty-five students with their backpacks, my teacher desk, filing cabinets, extra tables for projects, and bookcases. In fact, occasionally we combined two classes, about seventy kids, while I taught the day’s lesson. No, my classroom was overcrowded with other people. Parents, the building administration, central administration, the county intermediate services, and the worse, politicians at both the state and federal level. It got so bad I had to stack the politicians three deep against the classroom walls. Everyone had the answer to the crisis in education, and everyone’s credentials, for the most part, were that they had at one time in their life attended public schools. Hmm.

The problem with making generic decisions that affect all students is just that. They’re generic. And when the gage as to whether students are meeting some arbitrary standards is standardized testing predictably our students won’t perform well. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for accountability. My colleagues and I hold ourselves to the highest standard when teaching our kids. Their failures are analyzed, are not accepted, and the challenge begins to educate all of our students. When you’re assessing learning though it isn’t as simple as a, b, and c. 

A very smart man, my husband, and a non-educator explained it to me this way a long time ago. He was in manufacturing dealing with machine parts and robotics. We both started with a product and at the end of a fixed length of time, that product evolved into something else. My husband had nearly complete control of the product. I obviously didn’t. So, many outside influences and disruptions to the teaching process. At the end of the day, a few bad parts ended up in the discard box, unacceptable and at a cost factor. At the end of my day, the stakes were so much higher. Failing students who I could not in good conscience forget or toss aside.

And yet, not one politician approached me literally or figuratively. Why ask the very people trained to teach young people what they need to do their job? Why ask a teacher why her kids are struggling with the material? Why ask a teacher what needed to be taught and what were best practices for teaching it? Why ask the professional? Problem number one. We don’t value the very expertise of the people in the classroom, educated by excellent schools in Michigan and around the country who deal day in and day out with the problems.

Do we do this to other professions? Does the engineer take direction from everyone else when he walks in with his degree? Does the automotive mechanic fix your car based on what you think or based on what he thinks is wrong? Does the doctor or nurse delay critical treatment to fill out a form or call the state for advice? God, I hope not. We rely on these people to know something about their chosen field but not in education. No one ever asked me. No one came into my classroom or invited me to Lansing for a frank discussion of what my kids needed to learn and how to do that.

Problem number two. One prescription won’t do. A one shoe fits all mentality won’t work. Recent examples like every child should go to college, and therefore, should be required to take a language. News flash. Not every child wants to go to college, and some children would be better served with two hours of math or reading instead of a foreign language. Looking closely at our student population I always envisioned my district taking a leadership role, a magnet school for vocational education. In recent history, the pendulum swung away from these types of jobs to college for everyone, but in our area just north of the city of Detroit, the three closest districts with similar populations would have been wise to offer a complete vocational program. Restore auto shop, woodshop, and home economics. Not the 1950s version, but one tailored to this decade. Do we not need auto mechanics anymore with our high tech cars and diagnostic equipment? Do we not need carpenters, cabinet builders, and construction workers anymore? And as for home economics, a class I quickly discovered I could do, but didn’t interest me in the least, could we offer culinary cuisine, foster future chefs, uplift sewing to fashion design and create their own clothing? Would our students have gained a marketable skill in addition to the many others we offered over the years? A magnet school to draw on the three adjoining districts to offer students something if they weren’t interested in college. Did anyone ask a teacher?

Problem number three. Kids are different. Urban kids, rural kids, kids with different family structures, kids from different economic situations, kids from different racial and ethnic backgrounds with varying beliefs, kids who are monitored, kids who live on the streets, kids who know how to buy a weapon, kids who are having sex at fourteen, kids who need someone to talk to, kids who can’t face another day, kids with a broken heart because a boyfriend or girlfriend has moved on. The list is endless and it influences whether the child will engage on any given day. 

At one point a teacher friend told me once you’ve taught something, you never have to prep it again. Just pull the worksheet from your filing cabinet, and you’re set to go. This concept was garbage. I prepped every lesson, every day and every hour for twenty-seven years because my kids were different each year. What was a stellar lesson one year could fall flat another year. And every teacher has had the nightmare of working through a lesson and knowing somewhere in her gut that it wasn’t working. The kids were lost, distracted, and time was wasted.

One year we teamed in my district. It was a great program for kids except we shared a common subject. I taught three social studies classes, another teacher taught three English classes, and the final teacher taught three science classes. Missing something? Yes, we all had one math class. Dear God, help my kids. I was one lesson ahead of them as I prepped long hours over that class. One day I’m at the overhead walking my kids through the steps to solve the problem. Math was never my strong suit and as we continued, I lost my focus. I could see the confusion on the faces of my students. I started over from scratch. We could do this, but I finally concluded it wouldn’t be that day. I trusted my kids, and they, in turn, trusted me. I took a leap of faith, put down my marker, and turned off the projector. I asked if they were as confused as I was and if they’d mind tabling math till we could start fresh tomorrow. They happily closed their books and returned to social studies. By the way, that math lesson made a lot more sense the next day to all of us.

Does the state understand any of this?

Classrooms are generally the same. That’s why when teaching middle and high school kids, a teacher is constantly changing things up. With the new technology at the time, smart boards, videos, interactive maps, the resources were numerous, but none of it works without the steady hand of a competent teacher. For example, our district like others had teacher evaluations every three years. I called them ‘dog and pony shows’ for good reasons. We were warned, for one, that an administrator would visit our classroom on a particular day and watch us teach. Of course, we put our best foot forward to get all the boxes checked. An attention-getting device, a clear and focused lesson, the teacher’s interaction with her students, guided practice, the check for understanding, the teacher’s attention to potential problems or reaction to discipline issues, and the timing of the lesson and homework. Check. Check. Check. The kids always knew why Mr. or Ms. Administrator was seated discretely in the back of the room. On one particular occasion, the administrator canceled twice. To their defense, they have pressing things that come up during the day. I finally told her I didn’t care when she came in. Just to choose a time that was convenient for her. She came on a day I had combined my class with another teacher in my room to watch the movie, Iron Jawed Angels. If you haven’t watched it, I highly recommend it. It’s about the women’s suffrage movement in 1918-19. Women fighting against President Woodrow Wilson who had his own problems with foreign policy and World War 1. A time when women didn’t have property rights or even the right to their own children. White and Black men had long been given the right to vote, but women were still waiting to become a part of the enfranchised masses until they were tired of waiting. The administrator showed up at my door and rolled her eyes. I was just showing a movie. She’d come back another time. I quickly ushered her in and directed her to the back of the room to an empty seat. Then I continued teaching. Never would I allow my students to muddle through a movie without my guidance. That’s babysitting, not teaching.

Seventy kids were engaged. They weren’t clambering to escape to the bathroom. They weren’t fidgeting in their bookbags. They were watching these women who were arrested for peacefully protesting outside the President’s home. They were watching the police physically remove them and bring them before a judge where they were charged a nominal fee and dismissed. They were watching the women refuse to pay, accepted the alternative, jail, and then staged a hunger strike. The President could not have these women dying in jail on his watch so he authorized the facility to ‘handle’ it. As a burly guard grabbed the female ringleader, I stopped the movie. I was the least favorite person in the building at that moment. 

“What did women do so you could have the right to vote?” I asked. “How far were they willing to go so you could vote, ladies? Watch carefully and remember when it’s raining or snowing, and you don’t want to go out to vote.”  At the time the district had ordered all teachers to do writing folders with their students, and I didn’t mind at all with social studies. It just seemed natural. I told my kids to grab their folders (hurry if they wanted to continue the movie) and told them to write a paragraph, minimally five sentences, about how far these women were willing to go. Predict the lengths the warden would go to control their behavior within his walls. They wrote feverishly, counted the words, and recorded their beliefs. (They were required to count the words. I’m not sure why.) I didn’t restart the movie until every folder was back in its designated place. The women were force-fed, graphically depicted in the movie, through tubes. Raw eggs for protein down their throats and noses. My students cringed and groaned but not one of them turned away. Stopping the movie to write or discuss was one of my favorite ways to watch a movie. When the final vote came, we waited to see if the legislators, all-male, had the courage to grant women the right to vote. The tie-breaker vote was cast by a member with the gentle prodding of his mother who encouraged him to do the right thing. The real teaching came at the end of the movie. “Why did these women feel their vote was so important?” One vote equaled one voice. In a democratic society, we change leadership peacefully with our vote, and every single vote counts. We accept the decision of the majority, endure each administration, and voice our pleasure or displeasure in four years. Did my kids learn that day? Damn right they did, but how do you measure that on a standardized test? Can they name names like Lucy Burns or Alice Paul? Can they remember the President who wasn’t a fan of the women’s movement? Where is the real learning, though? Ask a teacher.

A colleague and a very good friend taught English. She had her students read a book a month and had them do a project around that book. One month she had them eat their books. Not literally, of course. They had to bring in a food that depicted the book in some way. The kids feasted and loved it, and of course explaining the significance of the food directly related to the reader’s understanding. Every teacher knows there is more than one way to evaluate students.

But the politicians have yet to acknowledge that I know my kids better than they do and that I know what they need. When I started in my district, I was fortunate to join a great staff in the alternative education program. At the time students from out of district were given the opportunity to start or finish classes toward a high school diploma. One student drifted into my English class and showed up for only two classes. I didn’t see him again till next semester when he registered again and lasted through the second week. He started my class no less than seven or eight times (no exaggeration), but each time he knew I’d be looking for him, and each time he lasted a little longer. He dropped out at ten weeks, and I admit I was livid. I thought I had him that time. Sure enough he came back and as he reached the milestone of twelve weeks, I dragged him out in the hall, better known as my office. My Italian temper on full display, I quietly informed him he would finish my class this time. If he dared to disappear, I’d show up at his house and personally drag his sorry butt to school. He needed to finish this once and for all. At this point, he was qualified to teach it! I held my breath, waiting for him the next week. He showed every week until he completed the class. Success builds on success.

A teacher who cares is potent toward success.

This bright young man stuck with it, checking in with me now and then and finally walked across the stage with his high school diploma. Failing schools? How can the state evaluate that?

If the politicians were to ask, what would I tell them?

  1. Trust the experts, the teachers with the credentials who spend hours of their time planning lessons, evaluating students, and changing gears to reach their most challenging students. Help them with ample supplies, adequate funding, and appropriate legislation. Untie their hands with laws that endanger other kids in the classroom and make learning impossible.
  2. Limit standardized testing. The first two months of school shouldn’t be wasted on test after test. Students quickly develop test fatigue and don’t care if they do well.
  3. Allow teachers to do what they do best. I’ve always said good teaching will educate our students, raise test scores, and satisfy everyone. Allow it to happen. 
  4. And lastly, it isn’t about money. Teachers never went into the profession to become rich. They could easily take their degree and make a greater salary in a different industry. The heart of a teacher accepts that some things are more important than money. That being a teacher isn’t a career choice but ultimately who you are. An educator is someone who hopes the seeds they plant will root and blossom when their students become adults with children of their own. And as politicians, there are some things money can’t buy. You can’t buy loyalty, dedication, idealism (I still have it after all these years.), and learning. Those things happen in an environment that is safe, structured, and open to diverse ideas and opinions. An environment that welcomes parents as a crucial part of their child’s education.

I had my share of student teachers when I was teaching. I hope they learned that good teaching is hard work, but the most rewarding when that bulb finally lights, and you can see the learning taking place. When your students ask the hard questions, and when you don’t give them the answers but guide them to find their own.

As a history teacher, the elections were always a great teaching tool. In 2008 my students wanted to know who I was voting for. I never told them, partly, because it was secret ballot for a reason, and more importantly, because I didn’t want to influence them. We looked at the issues to determine which candidate addressed their concerns. After that election, my students regurgitated that which they had heard, no doubt, on the news. “President Obama’s election was historic.” 

I challenged them without thinking. “Why was it historic?” 

“The first Black president,” they recited like I was stupid. 

I continued, “We had forty-three presidents before this one. Aren’t they all historic?”  

“No, but he’s Black.”

I thought we had come a long way from the sixties when we struggled to not judge a man based on the color of his skin or his race. “Is Obama qualified to be president?” I asked. “Is he the best man for the job?” 

“He’s Black,” they continued to argue. 

“So what? Does his skin color make him a better president? And what about gender? If he were a woman, would he be an even better president?” 

The light finally went on. “No.” 

“We won’t know if his presidency is historic for at least four, maybe eight years when we see what he has accomplished.”

A teachable moment and perhaps one our nation needs to relearn as the charges of racism are casually bantered about. We are all Americans, all should exercise the right to vote responsibly, and honor the document that guides us, the Constitution. How do you evaluate that?

When will a politician have the courage to admit they know less about how students learn and what curriculum is necessary than the teachers that work with children day in and day out? I may be retired, but I’m still waiting for that day. Then maybe the questions and the criticisms will change or stop. 

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