11/16/2012 01:27 pm ET Updated Jan 16, 2013

It's Broken (Not Broke); Fix It

Teaching irony is always easy at an inner-city public high school -- and it has never been easier.

Just last year, one of the very best teachers in my school was laid off because there isn't enough money in the system to pay for all of our teachers anymore. But he got hired last fall by another school in our district which supposedly doesn't have enough money to pay all of its teachers. That same district sent us three other teachers who had been displaced from other schools because the district couldn't figure out where they should work. They couldn't tell us how long these teachers would be at our school so we couldn't give them classes to teach -- and maybe reduce the size of a chemistry class from 40 to 30 or an AP Literature class from 39 to 25. The three teachers showed up at our school for over a month -- as did, apparently, hundreds of other such employees (pool teachers, they are called) while hundreds of children all over our city struggle to learn in overcrowded classrooms with overwhelmed teachers.

I cannot think of a better example of why our schools fail so many of our children.

I'm sure there is a logical explanation, according to the rules of the district and teachers union and education code, for this massive waste of human resources -- the teacher pool in which so many are drowning. And that logic is exactly why our schools are failing so many of our children.

The system isn't broke -- under-funded though it might be. It's broken. It needs more money but it needs much more. Our state just passed a ballot proposition that will raise taxes in order to keep schools from having to cut another three weeks or so from an already shortened school year but that money probably won't do much to fix what really ails our students.

There are solutions to the problems in schools. Most are simple and obvious:

  • We need teachers who are well-prepared, who understand and care about the children they are supposed to teach, and who are given the necessary resources to do the job;
  • The necessary resources are the books and materials and equipment, including a reliable internet connection -- because we are, after all, in the Twenty-first century;
  • Manageable class sizes so that we have a reasonable chance of being attentive to the needs of each student;
  • A manageable schedule of classes that leave us time to prepare innovative, imaginative, and engaging lessons and give feedback on student work;
  • Pay and benefits that reflect the enormous responsibility and importance of our job -- and that do not require us to find second and third jobs in order to live comfortably;
  • A school environment that is safe -- not just physically but psychologically;
  • A school culture that recognizes excellence and provides opportunities for every student to be successful;
  • Rules -- and the effective and reasonable enforcement of those rules -- that protect children, not just administrators and districts afraid of law-suits and reprimands;

Politicians and district administrators have, for years, asked for increased accountability on the part of schools and their administrators and teachers -- but without first making much effort to fix the problems in schools. It is as if they believe that the problems will fix themselves once the data reveals those short-comings. But it doesn't seem to work that way.

I once had a friend who crashed two cars driving drunk. Somehow he walked away from both accidents and didn't hurt anyone else either. His wife pleaded with him to do something about his drinking problem. "Drinking problem?" he asked, incredulously. He didn't think he had a drinking problem. He had a driving problem.

The people who run failing schools act as if they have a data problem -- not an education problem -- and it is the data problem they set out to repair. Sometimes they hide their intentions behind the students-first double-speak but often no one even bothers with that. They expend resources preparing students for the high-stakes tests and encourage teachers to work backwards from projected test results. I know young teachers who are routinely told to ignore historical events or scientific topics because they are supposedly not going to be tested that year.

That is why our schools are failing. Because the system has disregarded -- or forgotten -- its purpose.

The joy of learning has been replaced by the fear of unrealized growth projections.

The nurturing of intellectual interests has been replaced by uniformity and standardization that tries to ensure all students are burdened with the same inferior instruction.

What gets called accountability is simply educational mal-practice.

What is meant to measure our effectiveness undermines it.

Challenge this abomination and we are told that we must not want to be made responsible for what we do and for whether or not students are learning in our classrooms. But it isn't the teachers who should be put on the defensive -- it is everyone who obstructs us from being able to best serve our students every day.

Taking money that is supposed to be used to educate children and using it for self-promotion and supporting a multi-billion dollar testing industry is fraud -- and there ought to be a law against it.

Sadly, those of us who care deeply about the children and who work countless extra hours to ensure that those children are provided with quality instruction are part of the problem.

Because when we get positive results -- when we work even harder to overcome all the stupidity and ignorance and cynicism of the system and its parasites and con-artists -- we are helping them justify giving us larger classes and less autonomy and more testing.

If we had any sense we would give the system the results it deserves. But we work for the students. We see them every day. We know what their lives are like. We know what some of them go through just to get to school and what awful home lives some of them have. And those among us who are the most idealistic -- and, perhaps, foolish -- might actually believe that if we can help our students fix what is broken in their lives, through education and empowerment of a kind no multiple choice test could ever hope to measure, that perhaps some of those students might grow up to one day figure out how to fix what is broken in our schools.