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Why are our schools failing my children?

September 18, 2008

This has been bothering me a little bit lately, so I just want to get it off my chest and my mind.

I grew up in a family where my mother worked as a dedicated educator in a private school. She made very little money (4 digit salaries most of her career) and reinvested most of that back into her classroom purchasing materials and providing experiences for her students. As the teacher’s kid, I was always one of the first ones there in the morning, and usually the last one to leave – a habit that carried over into my own work ethic when I went into education 2 decades ago.

We had textbooks, and workbooks, and we took “SRA” tests. We didn’t have computers in the classroom ~ or cell phones ~ heck, we didn’t have calculators because they cost too much. The school shared an Encyclopedia Britannica set located down the hall in a small and cramped library with a bunch of well loved and taken care of titles that likely my mother had read when she went through school.

I understand the sacrifice that teachers have made in education. Our family ate later than everyone else. As I got older, I was a latch-key kid, letting myself in by myself when I walked home from the bus which dropped me off in any weather about .75 of a mile from my parents home. (And yes, it was uphill on the way home!)

But today I see teachers backed by strong unions complaining that they “get no respect.” They show up slightly before the first bell, leave after a contractually demanded 30 minute work period. They demand discounts and special treatment, yet often those things don’t translate to the classroom. I hate to see the amount of materials and services that each day are wasted by educators that feel “I don’t get paid for that” while others could benefit greatly and must go without.

In my circle of friends I’ve heard accusations that teachers shouldn’t stay late or work outside of school because it will become EXPECTED of them. Don’t fix the technology, because it is someone else’s job. I was once grieved for moving my desk so that my back was no longer to my window.

A typical classroom I walk into today has about 25 students in it ~ sometimes more. If each student received just 15 minutes of individual attention in the 6 instructional hours available there would still not be enough time to validate every child. Take from that passing times, assemblies (as another friend just experienced, getting students to sell magazines improves their achievement how?), and all of the time lost to general silliness that includes discipline problems and administrative oversight like testing to make sure our schools aren’t “failing.” It’s hard to make sure that children are succeeding when we set ourselves up for failure with “no child left behind.”

Where teachers once used to set benchmarks and deal with “scope and sequence” today we have state and national standards, and universal textbooks with content set by states with strong influence over those textbook manufacturers. In many classrooms themes and activities have been replaced by chapters in the textbook. Suggested lesson plans in the teacher’s edition have become THE lesson plans for the classroom so we can guarantee McDonald’s like consistency from classroom to classroom and school to school. New teachers in the past 10 years have known nothing different. In many classrooms I visit I now feel like the “art” of teaching has been lost to the “application” of a formula.

At the same time we have wonderful new robust communications networks in our schools. 38 states are now part of Internet2. Wiring loans and grants over the past 10 years have brought fiber connections to remote communities, and placed computers in almost every classroom. Cell phone providers now offer high speed services in more communities which include podcasting services, internet access and unlimited text messaging. Moreover an increasing number of students in K12 are walking around with these devices in their pockets! Web2.0, or the “Read/Write Web” has turned every child into a publisher, and given every user the opportunity to have a voice.

Yet our textbooks, which take 6-7 years to come to print and be approved and deployed, don’t yet know how to embrace virtual worlds, social networking, and instant publishing. Our classroom doors remain “closed” because teachers have not received training. (And it is not solely a question of access to training, for where it is available it is often underutilized.) Where teachers have gotten trained, filters tied to funding legislation and criminal repercussions mean that teachers can’t seize the teachable moment with students. And for the few cases where access exists and filters don’t provide insurmountable hurdles, we have Acceptable Use Policies restrictive enough to not put any child “at risk.”

All of this perhaps wouldn’t bother me as much as it does, but it hits really close to home. I see the effects on my own children. Without calling anyone in particular out, for all of the accountability and prescriptive teaching we have put in place, we’ve forgotten we are teaching children. Money flows freely for special education services while budgets tighten in other areas. Field trips are cut. TAG services have been squeezed. Energy and transportation costs have gone through the roof. And unions are telling teachers that it should not be THEM that spend the extra time making sure the children are not the losers.

If you’re one of my 7 readers – I will admit you’re probably not who I am talking to. I really want to give my son’s teacher this year the benefit of the doubt. I know it is the system that is broken, not entirely the teacher’s fault. But I sure wish there was more than 10-15 minutes in the day to help inspire and lead my sons, offer them opportunities and help them become future leaders. I do everything I can to spend that time myself, interested in what happens when I am not around, and working with my boys and their friends through Scouts and sports. I feel bad for those children whose parents can’t or won’t make those same commitments.

Perhaps this isn’t the most upbeat post I will ever write ~ but as I said, it’s something I feel that I need to just get off my chest so it doesn’t keep weighing me down. I sometimes think that I would love to home school my boys. Maybe even hire a private tutor for even just a few hours per day ~ an outstanding private educator.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. September 19, 2008 10:38 am

    I don’t know where else to put this, and I don’t want it top level in a new blog post, so I’m going to semi bury it here.

    BACKGROUND: the college where I work had to lay off paraprofessionals in order to meet a budget that has ballooned off the charts. Make no mistake, here at the tech college, we hurt for next to NOTHING, so these layoffs are really being seen as an inappropriate first cut…

    Here’s an email I *just* received that I am ticked off about:

    Good Morning,

    This will be one of several emails going out this morning so please bear with me. I want to make sure that I send you all the information that I have, because I feel it is important for our members to stay educated and alert to what is going on. At our Executive Committee Meeting last night I shared a quote from ——— on unions that I would like to also share with you. I take this quote very seriously and I hope you will too.

    “We are a professional organization and this is our professional home. In terms of the union, our duty as union officials is not to protect the person, but to protect the process and the contract. The person is responsible to live up to their responsibilities, and it’s the responsibility of the administration to properly manage … but it’s the union’s role to make sure that the process, not the person, is protected … even if we have to file grievances against the wishes of some of our own members in order to protect and maintain the process.” –——–

    In addition, below is an email from —— President of the [union]. This is a perfect example of how our unions “should” be working together to protect the rights of our members. Although —- is not part of our union he is asking his members to help protect the jobs of [union] members that have been laid off, and I am asking you to do the same as well.

    Sent: Mon 9/15/2008 6:47 AM
    Subject: Paraprofessionals
    Good Morning,

    I know for a fact that your semester is not going the way you would like it to. The obvious reason, as we all know, is the loss of your valuable, instrumental, and indispensable paraprofessionals.

    Dear colleagues, your paraprofessionals are not going to come back unless you are actively involved in the process of bringing them back. We all know how vital they were in helping you accomplish your daily tasks.

    We all love our students and would do anything above and beyond to be of service to them and to their career choices. This extra mile that you would like to offer to every student that comes to your office seeking your help requires a certain amount of quality services that can not be provided under your current working conditions. It was the assistance that your paraprofessionals provided you with that allowed you to give these quality services. Now, your paraprofessionals are gone and now you could feel that they took some of the quality services with them.

    Please consider the following list of actions that you could take to make their return and the return of your quality services to our students a possibility:

    – Do not spend any time at work beyond your assigned work day.

    – Do all of your assigned work at work and never take any work home with you.

    – Do not hire a work study student to do any of the work that was the work of the paraprofessional. Our [union] contract does not allow subcontracting of our work resulting in the layoff of bargaining unit members. Therefore, we can’t allow subcontracting of [union] work while the paraprofessional positions are being laid off/eliminated.

    – Dedicate time for paperwork, filing, checking voice mails, checking emails, researching a topic or a condition you are dealing with, etc.

    – Do not eat in the office; you are entitled to a lunch break.

    – Take at least a couple of 5-minute breaks during the day.

    – Document what cannot be done because your paraprofessional isn’t there to provide these necessary functions.

    – Document your daily accomplishments and the time needed to achieve them. More importantly, make sure you also document the student needs that you were not able to accomplish.

    – Frequently communicate (document) the need for paraprofessional to _______________________ and inform your supervising dean, ———, ————, and [the college president] that you can’t get your daily tasks accomplished without your paraprofessional.

    – Send students who feel the need for more of your time and services to your supervisor and have them complain about having to wait while you are very busy helping other students while they wait.

    The bottom line is, if the work is there, the District needs to rehire your paraprofessional. Then and only then will you be able to once again provide your complete quality services to our students.

    [And I’ve cut out all of the signatures and congratulatory crap our “professionals” are now using to justify once again why they don’t have to do their jobs.]

  2. September 19, 2008 10:44 am

    By the way – I didn’t write it in my original post here, but I think one of the biggest issues driving this is the fact that our teachers and administrators no longer live in the communities they serve.
    There was once an air of mystery that accompanied meeting your 4th grade teacher at the Red Owl buying groceries and wondering, “what does she eat?!” or “my teacher has to go shopping TOO?!”
    It was wonderful to find your most inspiring teachers on the bench at school football games, community soccer games, sitting with their family clapping for you in the 4th of July parade.
    The only reference to students in the email above seems to be to try and goad them into tell your supervisor how “cheated” you are and how they don’t deserve to be a paid student helper because it might jeopardize your bargaining unit.
    This is not why I went into education. But it is why I will leave.

  3. September 19, 2008 11:13 am

    Your post addresses a difficult issue. Whose responsibility is it to make sure students are receiving the best possible education? I believe the responsibility lies on everyone involved in education from the teacher to the administrator to the school board to the union. Other issues seem to get in the way of learning sometimes though. I wish this weren’t the case.

    I have been lucky in my teaching career. At both schools, I had an ample amount of freedom to teach the curriculum the best way I saw fit. This also meant I had more responsibility for creating new projects and lessons. I spent extra hours before and after school and on weekends. It was a trade-off. Most of the time I simply could not accept mediocrity, so I took the extra time to make the minutes in class really count.

    Now that I have learned how to balance my free time and my work time and still do a good job, my focus is more on helping other teachers do the same. I have NOT mastered this yet. I don’t know how to inspire others to spend a little extra time to learn a new technology that can open so many doors into and out of their classrooms. The response is always the same, “Who has time for that?” “I have too many other pressures to deal with.” I don’t know how to gracefully respond to these questions yet. This is my challenge, and I hope to find a way soon to encourage learning and minimize whining.

  4. September 19, 2008 1:19 pm

    I’m in my third career and my seventh year as teacher at almost 62 years old.
    Many of the people I have met in education are neither amateurs nor professionals – Neither working for the love of it, nor working to a standard that deserves the adjective and noun professional.
    However, my French professor was the first one I ever heard say that “Education is the only business where the customer wants less for their money.”
    There are too many with vested interests to radically revamp education, and, I fear that unless we do, the experience of education in the United States is going to come to a sorry end.

  5. Kate Tabor permalink
    September 19, 2008 2:17 pm

    Dan –

    I was just talking about something similar today. I work at a private school and I am at school by 7:30 and I leave just before 5. It makes me crazy when I see teachers come in minutes before their first class and leave seconds after their last. Friday after 2:00 it’s a ghost town here
    The “not my job” ethos makes me cranky. Whose job is it? With rights come responsibilities. That’s the deal, and our collective bargaining protects none of us from direct dealing and untouchable teachers who seem to be able to write their own ticket and schedule.
    So, you are not alone in your frustration.

  6. September 19, 2008 3:42 pm

    I think you hit the nail on the head and I don’t have an answer that would fix anything. I just want to stand and applaud what you are saying because you put into words a lot of what I’ve felt. I am teaching courses to teachers and hope to share opinions like this to open up discussions that hopefully will make them more aware of ways that they can fight to better our educational system. Thank you so much for sharing!

  7. September 19, 2008 3:51 pm

    I have never taught in a state with a teacher’s union, so my observations are totally from an outsider’s perspective, and perhaps I will be the enemy of many for saying this, but the more I hear about unionized states, the less I think teachers’ unions do to improve or even maintain the quality of education. They help raise teachers’ salaries and protect employees from arbitrary or biased treatment, which are truly meaningful benefits — the rub is that these benefits seem focused mostly on the teachers and not on the students.

    Here in Virginia, a non-union state, I also occasionally see lazy teachers who work “to the contract,” but I see many more teachers who work long past their contract hours and work alongside district policymakers to build curriculum and provide resources to each other. Perhaps some do this because they fear for their jobs, but in my personal experience, many do it because they feel a sense of commitment to educating children and not so much to personal gain. Without the protection of a union, they are paid significantly less than union teachers yet are expected to do much more. So what makes them willing to make sacrifices and accept lower pay and more demanding positions? Is it complacency? Lack of choices? Or is it dedication?

    In contrast, you describe teachers with a substandard worth ethic and an overwhelming lack of passion. It makes me wonder if unions are so powerful and sheltering that they spoil the teachers, enabling a false sense of entitlement — to more money for less work, to sweeter working conditions, to lower or nonexistent performance expectations, to protection from consequences, etc.

    I may be totally naive about this, so forgive me for asking, but how do teacher unions benefit the students? Union teachers, you can throw rotten tomatoes at me now! Or even better, explain to me why unions are so good for education.

  8. September 20, 2008 8:24 am

    Frustrations abound when you speak about educating our children. There is plenty of blame to go around. Administration, teachers, parents and society in general. I went into the education profession like so many of my colleagues to make a positive difference in the lives of children. If an individual takes this very seriously and works hard to make it happen then you are successful. It is challenging but the rewards are great.
    From personal experience I understand that with so many needs in a classroom that it is difficult to really give the attention to every student. Those that are quiet, following directions, getting the lesson…are often forgotten. With the needs so great of just a few, there is not much time left to give the other students the attention that they deserve. Is this the fault of the teacher, of the law of inclusion or something else? We have lots of behavior issues and learning issues in our classrooms. Students come with such a wide range of abilities. In one classroom you will have students a grade or two above grade level to a grade or two below grade level. Teachers need to meet the needs of all of them. If you do not speak English at home, cannot sit or stand without interrupting, it is a job made harder for the teacher.
    My own children were “gifted”. What ever that means? Sad for all of us their true potential was never met in the schools they attended. Instead their brilliance in academia was used to help others that were not “getting it”. I had hoped that their love of learning would be nurtured by their teachers and that they would be inspired to think and problem solve. Only once in their 13 years did my sons have a class that challenged them to think. Most of what they did was regurgitation of things that they memorized.
    For what it is worth, I feel your frustration. I wish that I had the answer and the power to change what is wrong with our school system.

    ~Heidi Pence

  9. September 20, 2008 11:32 am


    I love this posting and am inclined to agree with you on almost everything. I am one of those teachers that vehemently thinks you should not be working more than your contracted hours. I have a long posting of this and the reasons why on my blog. To summarize, it narrows down to a professionalism, respect, and value scenario. I thoroughly enjoyed reading a differing perspective, yet if you read mine I think you and I would have a common ground agreement on what would be an ideal situation. In my humble opinion I do not blame teachers for leaving, I blame the system for not rewarding those that actually do put in the extra time.

  10. September 20, 2008 11:46 am

    I absolutely agree with your sentiments. Saying anything more will detract from the content of your posting.

  11. September 20, 2008 12:12 pm

    Check out the episode “Not the Only Kid on the Block ” on Learning Matters with John Merrow; an interview with the president of DC’s teacher union. He acknowledged that the DC union has historically ignored student achievement, but must now address the loss of students to charters and other alternative schools and the subsequent loss of jobs.


  12. September 20, 2008 12:14 pm

    I’d like the chance to skype some of this out with you, because I think your points are valid.

    First, I think you have to take it one rant at a time. System, teachers, unions, modern work ethic (or lack thereof). Educators need to present these issues in compelling ways for the general public so that we can paint a cohesive picture of education in the 21st Century.

    You might have noticed my interest in Sir Ken Robinson lately. He proposes that the answer is not a reformation of education, but a transformation. This transformation needs to happen on all levels: systemic, professional, communal (is that the right adjective for community?).

    I don’t think that we can idealize the past. It was a broken system of non-promises and inequity, but it was sufficient to support our industrial society.

    Fast forward to today: the system hasn’t changed, but the demands from industry and society have. We’ve transitioned from industrial to post-industrial economy. Now, we have to change the fundamental paradigms of the purposes of education, so that we can make promises that we might actually be able to keep (NCLB, anyone?)

    Most importantly, we must embed in every rant at least a hint of the solution. If we only criticize and complain without casting vision for change, we will only dig ourselves deeper into the trench of inadequacy.


  1. Ranting about failing schools | Joel Zehring

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