Education in Chicago: Reader, What Would You Do?

05/15/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

(Three weeks ago, in the Chicago Tribune for February 24, 2010, reporter Pam DeFiglio recounted her visit to an inner-city fifth-grade classroom at Spencer Technology Academy on the West Side of Chicago. In her story, she described the school day of a first-year teacher, a young woman I will call Mary Jensen, one of 200 rookie teachers who receive classroom guidance as a part of a Chicago Public Schools mentoring program known as The Chicago New Teacher Center. The idea of the Teacher Center is to reduce the shocking rate at which first-year teachers in the Chicago Public School quit teaching, a rate computed at 39% by ACORN in 2005. Mary Jensen's mentor, Carl Sannito, a veteran of CPS classrooms, is a full-time coach in the program, funded by the West Coast nonprofit, The New Teacher Center.)

Reader, I'm asking you to put yourself in Mary Jensen's place. You're a new teacher in a tough elementary school on Chicago's West Side. You have 25 kids in your fifth-grade class, only seven of whom are reading at grade level. Many of the rest are reading at a second-grade level, which means they're wrestling with their ABCs, or with phonics, or with "See Dick and Jane play with Spot."

What do you do? You have eighteen kids who are at the crossroads. You know your male non-reading pupils are listening to gang members telling them learning is for Oreos and sissies.

You know that according to many authorities, fifth grade is a turning point. By the end of the school year, many of Mary Jensen's eighteen sub-literates will be well on their way to a life of crime: drug use, prostitution, alcohol abuse, chronic truancy, fighting, guns--and most of this self-destructive misbehavior, you know, can be traced back to the fact that these kids can't read.

And because you have so many non-readers and poor readers, you have big discipline problems in class: Shame, rage, and self-loathing at not being able to read have turned some of these eighteen children into little terrors. Any one of them can throw the classroom into chaos in the blink of an eye, can make the whole day miserable for the teacher.

In the picture that accompanies the Feb. 24th Tribune news story, Mary's mentor, Carl Sannito, is shown completing a behavior chart on whiteboard in front of the class. On that chart are the mentor's talking points. In the upper left quadrant, what the kids should be trying to do in class:

1. Avoiding trouble
2. Not yelling
3. Not talking back
4. Controlling [your] behavior
5. Doing your work

And then, in the upper right quadrant, what they're trying not to do again:

6. Not avoiding trouble
7. Yelling
8. Talking back
9. Arguing
10. Smart remarks

And finally, in the lower two quadrants, positive "next steps":

1. Controlling ourselves
2. Listening
3. Help each other
4. Group work

And it's clear that what Carl Sannito has written on the whiteboard gives you just the tip of the iceberg. You can imagine some of the terrible difficulties Mary Jensen faces.

(And though the Chicago New Teacher Center is a wonderful program, and desperately needed by CPS' first-year teachers, mentors can only manage to visit the classrooms of their teachers three or four times a month for an hour each visit. A painfully, pitifully small amount of time.)

If you're Mary Jensen, you have a hard decision to make. Do you concentrate on the seven who know how to read, try your best to make passionate readers and serious studiers--bona fide college material--out of them?

One of your thoughts is, "If these literate seven go on to graduate from a four-year college because I worked them hard at a critical time in their lives, that's almost fifteen times as many college graduates from my class as from an average inner-city classroom. And I can be proud of that."

Or do you give most of your time to the eighteen poor readers--because you can't stand the thought of seeing their chances at a decent life end right under your nose--while you neglect the "good" kids?

Remember, you've got eighteen non-readers. Eighteen. Try to teach them to read in one big group, and you'll fail. Embarrassment and shame will keep them from reading out loud. Some will shout obscenities, get into fights, pull outrageous stunts, do anything to stop your teaching before it can start, in order to avoid being found out.

Furthermore, you've got just four, or four and a half hours of instruction time each school day. Many days, at a tough school like this, a dozen or two dozen chronic latecomers saunter in fifteen minutes after the last bell without a tardy slip, have to go to the bathroom, have forgotten their homework, don't have a pencil, take twenty minutes to settle down to work (one or two of these per class is all it takes to produce chaos across the whole school).

They make sure nobody in the whole school learns anything for the first hour or hour and a half of the day. That brings you to nine thirty or ten in the morning. Half an hour for lunch. Four hours left to teach them something.

Your mind and your heart tell you that each of the eighteen non-readers needs at least one uninterrupted hour a day of your time to himself, private tutoring, in a private setting well away from everybody, especially apart from classmates. Each needs you one-on-one for a whole hour, minimum, every day, to learn how to read.

You must give the non-readers different homework, and that homework must be reviewed in private, too, until the child catches up. And that means months, or years, of private, separate instruction. And you must somehow get the cooperation of the parents or the grandmother, or the older sister, or the court-appointed guardian. Someone has to show them how to study and do homework on their own.

But you realize that giving each of the eighteen just fifteen minutes of individual instruction in reading a day would exhaust the entire four and a half hours of instructional time at your disposal: no math taught, no science, no foreign languages, no art, no music, nothing. And nothing for the seven who could profit most from your teaching.

All the while, you know that two hours a day of private tutoring for each of the non-readers would be much better, three hours better still, and best of all would be one-on-one for six or seven hours day. But that is impossible.

Why is this exclusive attention absolutely necessary? Because already, at the age of ten, children who don't read have built up layers upon layers of wrath, confusion, hopelessness, failure, and overwhelming frustration. To have any chance of success, each child must be dealt with separately.

They're afraid, panicky, at the thought that they may be "stupid." They don't believe you when you tell them they have normal or above-average intelligence. They call you "stupid" to your face for saying that.

So, if you're Mary Jensen, what do you do? Do you muddle along, doling your time out equally to each of your twenty five pupils in a way that seems fair to you, while hoping that some of the non-readers will suddenly see the light? Or do you pick two or three of the most intelligent non-readers and let the other fifteen more or less mark time while you see if the extra attention can, in three or four or nine months, bring these three up closer to the level of the seven good readers?

Let's say you're an intelligent, fair-minded, idealistic teacher like Mary Jensen. Your conscience will torment you if you decide to let the able seven teach themselves while you try your damnedest to save at least some few of the eighteen who are helpless, trapped by their own shame, rage, and misery.

But you'll feel the sting of conscience if you go the other way, too: You know you have a duty to spur these seven to become better readers and writers. And you know how costly in teacher-time, teacher-thought, and teacher-strength it is to bring just one capable pupil within sight of mastery in any school subject.

So, do you save the seven, while you abandon the other eighteen to a hell on earth?

Reader, what should she do?

As I write this, I find myself wishing that Arne Duncan were here. I would say to him, "Mr. Duncan, all your tweaking of No Child Left Behind won't do one thing to help teachers like Mary Jensen. Children who aren't reading fluently by the end of the fifth grade will never be good readers. Never. And, Mr. Duncan, they won't respond to 'remedial' teaching, not in the seventh grade, not in the eleventh grade, not at Chicago City Colleges, not at Harvard. 'Remedial education' is a cruel joke. You know this, Mr. Duncan. No matter what she does, no matter how exhausting, and exhaustive, her efforts, Mary Jensen's eighteen children are most likely doomed to be academic and social cripples."

"Tell me, Mr. Duncan, what will your and President Obama's rewriting of No Child Left Behind do right now, this year, to help Mary Jensen turn these eighteen lives around? How will making it easier to fire bad teachers motivate dedicated, intelligent, hard-working teachers like her? How will "measuring" her performance take into account the fact that she's been given a job that was impossible to do from the very start? How do you motivate superior teachers to 'do better' when they face an impossible mess? A mess that is in no way one of their making? What advice do you have for her?"

I repeat, reader: What should this young teacher do?