Let's Address the Real Problem in Education

10/19/2010 12:23 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

One of the hats I wear in addition to publishing is teaching. I feel the two are intrinsically intertwined; one must create what one wants to teach. I am lucky enough to be able to do both, and as a teacher, I occasionally cannot ignore what is rapidly becoming the future of public education.

The LA Times also recently told the story of Faye Ireland, who taught elementary school in an inner-city Los Angeles school for 45 years, recently retired with scrapbooks full of thank you cards, letters dedications from former students, all of whom wanted Ireland to know how she touched and changed their lives. Faye Ireland is the lowest performing teacher according to the LA Times and their new ideology behind publically displaying teacher's CST scores.

If you looked at Faye Ireland's CST scores alone, as the LA Times is doing, she does look like a low performing teacher. What the LA Times and the CST scores are not telling you is that Faye Ireland was more interested in getting her kids fluent in English so they wouldn't be classified as ESL in middle school, and thus cut out of many of the competitive classes that they would need to enter a college track once they reached high school.

Of course, the CST scores do not reflect that. As with all of us who teach in inner-city schools with a large immigrant population, we see first hand that the CST is designed for native-English speakers who have had the advantage of a strong family support system, who have grown up in relative comfort, had consistent access to education, and most importantly -- have been raised in a Culture of Education.

A Culture of Education is that which truly makes the difference in a successful student and a failing one. While I had many bad teachers throughout middle and high school, I was raised by my mother who assumed from the time I started pre-school that I would not only go to college, but that I would finish graduate school. I knew that even if my teachers were not adequately preparing me, the burden lay on my shoulders. If my test scores were low, it was about me, not them.

Many of my students simply do not have this advantage. They are expected to graduate from high school and immediately find work so that they may help support their families. College is something that only enters their minds near the end of their senior year of high school, when it is largely too late to attend the schools that will give them the best education. Is it their fault? Is it mine? Should I blame their parents or the test scores? Maybe. But I choose to blame the economy.

Test scores are never going to rise until the economy leads the way. A Culture of Education is a luxury that many families cannot afford to support.

In Beverly Hills, in Brentwood, in Bel Air this is not an issue. A Culture of Education is a way of life. The sons and daughters of the suburbs and gated communities are blessed with the time, comfort and support that in turn will cause them to score better, perform better, apply to all the good schools.

Am I defending a bad teacher? A truly bad teacher who is actively failing his or her students on a daily basis? Or am I trying to lift up an educator who has become so burned out, so callous and cynical that they pass that negativity onto their students? Never. And to be crystal clear, those teachers most certainly do exist. I hear fellow teachers on a daily basis bemoan the fact that "our kids just can't learn" or "they just won't read" or "all my twelfth graders function on a fifth grade level."

They have created a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you believe something will never grow under your care, it most certainly will not. And if it does by chance or miracle, you will find a way to call it an exception to the rule, not the standard for which we all should strive.

So should someone call those teachers out? Yes. Are CST scores the way to do that? No. CST scores by themselves do not mean much. Individual schools should create their own evaluation system that takes into account administrator and peer observation, student evaluation, performance on a variety of standardized tests including the English Language Learners Evaluation, and yes, the CST. The CST is only part of the mystery that indicates an effective educator. By making it the whole, we do our teachers and our children an injustice.

By choosing to look at the problem in a microcosm, the LA Times is creating a very effective subterfuge, a means by which we can ignore the reality of the problem, and thus surrender ourselves to never truly finding a solution. Teachers are becoming the sacrificial lambs of the economy. If we can fire a teacher, or mar 45 years of service, as in Faye Ireland's case, we can collectively feel as though we have done something, we've tried to make a difference.

Never mind that the difference to be made is nominal, and as ineffective as opening an umbrella to ward-off the coming tsunami.