School Budget Cuts No Excuse For Mediocrity

03/29/2011 02:51 pm ET | Updated May 29, 2011

I stood in front of my packed first-period class yesterday, surveying a sea of sleepy teenage faces. While my electronic roster counted 44 total students, on this day it somehow seemed like more. Most were crammed into rickety desks, but some of the latecomers propped themselves atop a large counter in the back of the room, balancing three-ring binders and cafeteria-issued breakfast burritos on their laps. Even my own seat was fair game. A boy with a Lakers jersey had annexed it moments earlier and now sat behind my desk, mesmerized by the possibilities of the computer's mouse looming but inches away.

Depending on the scope of the next round of state budget cuts, my class sizes may well balloon to the upper 40s by next September. In addition to more kids per class, the cuts will also mean fewer visits from an already depleted custodial staff (we all take turns sweeping the floors) and vastly diminished classroom resources. Lost and damaged books won't be replaced; broken down computers and printers will sit idle and in permanent disrepair; and the same balky, Reagan-era Xerox machine will continue to bedevil, confound and infuriate a faculty of 130 teachers. And yet I'll be among the fortunate: I'll still have a job.

As is always the case, the students will suffer most of the collateral damage. Because of their youthful innocence and naivete, they'll overlook the most egregious injustices. The ravaged textbooks, mounting garbage littering the floors and diminished access to outmoded computers will simply remain part of the continuum of inequity they've been weathering since junior high.

Just once, I'd like to have the opportunity to ask the Schwarzeneggers, Guggenheims, Obamas and Arne Duncans of the world if they'd be okay with their daughter sitting in a classroom strewn with yesterday's Doritos wrappers or attending a school-sanctioned "college fair" mainly populated by military recruiters and community colleges. Moreover, would they find it acceptable for her to be precluded from reading The Grapes of Wrath because her English teacher is 12 copies short of a class set? Then again, each of these luminaries is a staunch advocate of continuing the vicious but maddeningly counterintuitive Bush-era policy of penalizing schools populated by students with already low literacy rates by reducing the federal money that could be used to purchase things like... books.

Over the years, I've found my students' increasingly distanced -- and, in some cases, hostile -- relationship with the written word to be alarming. But this trend seems to be slowly reversing itself, though I have no idea why. In fact, on several recent occasions, students have approached me about the possibility of holding weekend car wash and bake sale fundraisers so that everyone in class can have his or her own copy of Luis Rodriguez's Always Running, a book so compelling, lyrical and haunting, that its shelf life in my classroom mini-library rarely exceeds more than a few days. (I've finally put an end to purchasing copies with my own money.) While it's inspiring to have students who are moved by books, why are kids who are least financially able to purchase their own school materials being forced to do so?

Moments before the bell rings, I glance through the blinds of my class bungalow. Outside, construction workers are still slogging through the finishing touches of one among four massive concrete and steel impermeable heat islands that now grace the school's campus. Each site has been designated as a meeting niche for our school's respective small learning communities -- because why intermingle with your friends on a grassy knoll when you can do so on a concrete slab furnished with cell-block-chic picnic tables? As one of the workers drives what appears to be a pygmy backhoe around in circles, I fight back the urge to recall the images of the once towering oak trees that have been sacrificed so that Tater Tots can be eaten in an officially-sanctioned venue. I also can't help but wonder how many of my laid-off colleagues' combined salaries it takes to generate one of these sprawling masses of cement -- or the total number of iPads, laptops or other supposed gateways to educational equity the district could have provided students in lieu of what, at first glance, appear to be four of the lamest skate parks ever constructed.

And so the Kafkaesqe folly of public education parades on, right in front of our complicit eyes. Politicians and pundits extol the necessity of a "21st-century education," our president decries the nation's descent into math and science mediocrity, and yet, what do we get? Multimillion-dollar cement voids, another round of teacher layoffs and repeated hatchet blows to the school calendar.

The way in which many Americans embrace this ongoing stupidity, as reflected in their resignation and ennui, is astounding. We look away as already disadvantaged kids are continually short-changed, and we fail to recognize that we'll all have to pay double when incomplete educations manifest themselves into dead-end jobs, incarceration and addiction (and, consequently, increasing numbers of young adults who become burdens of the state).

And because complexity is befuddling-ly seen as the enemy of reason these days, polarizing demagogues, who come pointing fingers and bearing clean, decisive answers to the public school conundrum, are conferred an air of authority. To that end, they've come to be viewed as the plain-talking saviors of education reform, rather than what they really are: political opportunists.

Amidst all this, I've just begun Ray Bradbury's prophetic Fahrenheit 451 with my juniors as the culmination of a unit that addresses the possible detriments of living in a world in which we're all perpetually wired to the electronic information grid -- even when reading books. I started the unit off by showing them PBS' "Growing Up Online." Then, I had the students pick apart numerous essays assailing modern civilization's excessive reliance on technology. I integrated these with the musings of Thoreau and the rantings of Edward Abbey, both of whom lamented the demise of the sanctuary that only nature can provide. Finally, came readings from Jerry Mander and Neil Postman. Both painted a grim picture of how our brains are being neurologically re-wired to conform to the latest modes of communication.

For these former giants of academia, TV was the bogeyman; today, it's a crinkled Hot Cheetos wrapper amidst the landscape of perpetual electronic noise. With its limitations on interactivity and its inherent inability to offer cover from prying parents' eyes, the actual physical medium of TV is rapidly losing its utility and influence among the Internet generation. This point has been underscored by my students throughout the unit. When I casually asked how many of them watched at least three hours of TV a day, only two of my students (sheepishly) raised their hands. I was flummoxed, and it must have shown.

"We don't watch TV, Mister," said one girl after sneaking a surreptitious pull from a can of Monster.

"Yeah, TV's boring," added a boy drowning in an oversized hoodie. "Except for 'Jersey Shore.'"
I told them that I'd never seen one minute of "Jersey Shore," and yet I can somehow name half the "cast." Then I ask: What might Postman have to say about that?

"I don't know, Mr. Cohen," said one of the least vocal students I've ever had, suddenly galvanized by the mention of his favorite half hour of reality TV, "but you really need to watch that show. Just accept how dumb it is, and have fun." This, followed by multiple nods of agreement.

So in other words, embrace the stupidity.

Maybe it's sage advice. And yet I can't let it happen. If I'm not willing to give Obama a pass, I'm definitely not going to do it for Snooki.