A letter to my aunt who believes that “the educational system is broken”

Several years ago, I sent an email to my aunt to defend public schools and my role as a public school teacher in the service of our children and our society. This is my story. This is that letter. Please share, and let’s fulfill the hope of public education and honor the wisdom of our teachers.

Tía,

I know that you value me and have honored me before as an educator and teacher in a public school in California.  I don’t want to have to respond to this email because I have a fieldtrip to finish planning for, grading to do, a counselor to send an email to, and some parents to call (not to mention lesson planning to finish).  My school workday, which started at 7:00 a.m., just ended and most students have left, however, in many ways my day is only half-way over as I will be working on and off for the rest of the afternoon, evening and into the night.

I write to you because I cannot agree with the statement that “the educational system is broken.”  I work within the confines of this system everyday, and I know its weaknesses and strengths, its disasters and its triumphs.  I believe that the statements that you have made are borne out of a lack of access to educational research and critical literature on education in the United States.  Many of your statements come straight out of news sources that are more interested in creating consumers of news than in creating an educated public that has access to modern pedagogical debate, research, and practices in the educational world.  I would like to discuss education with people in this country – it is my passion, my career and my daily intellectual stimulus, but I wish I did not have to entertain a discussion in which there are so many misunderstandings and prejudices heaped upon public schoolspublic school teachers and public school administrators.

I have to respond to your statements, Tía, because they are demeaning and demoralizing in addition to being very superficial.  The amount of anti-teacher anti-union sentiment right now is extremely hurtful and disrespectful, and I, along with many other teachers, are having a very hard time coping with it because so much of it is hate-filled and lacking in any appreciation for the complexity of issues or acknowledgement of some historical perspective.  So, please, for my sake, and any of the number of good teachers you have had in your life, please, please do us a favor and read a lot more on the issues from multiple sources and consider the biases of the sources that you are reading or hearing from.

When you say you are not for the current “board of education, the system of education and teachers unions we currently have,” it would help to be more specific – each city, county and state have different boards of education, different systems of education in place and different teachers unions.  However, many California teachers belong to the California Teachers Union, an organization that has been on the front lines of making sure that students have qualified and professionally compensated teachers, an educationally manageable number of student contacts per teacher, and which also publishes a monthly magazine devoted to current educational research, improving student performance and behavior, lesson and curriculum ideas, and a multitude of easily digestible articles aimed at helping and supporting teachers be better teachers for their students.  My students have benefitted greatly by having unionized teachers who are paid a fair wage for our time and commitment, by having fewer students per class, among many other advantages.

Tía, you also mention that schools are “failure factories.”  As you say, “Schools all across the country have become failure factories if you have an “average” child, the statistics for graduating never mind attending college are beyond tragic!” Again, I have to disagree with the completeness of this statement.  I think that there is a historical perspective missing here – mainly that the United States is perhaps the only country in the world (and one of the first) to attempt to educate all (and I mean ALL) students, regardless of race, class, disability, etc.  Public schools in the United States do what few other countries do – attempt to educate the poorest to the wealthiest, the mentally and physically handicapped, emotionally abused and abandoned children, everyone comes in and we turn no one away – and we even keep them here through four years of high school.  This is a very recent development, and before the 1960’s, a smaller percentage of students graduated from high school, and a miniscule amount made it to college – college was reserved for mostly wealthy, mostly white and mostly male.  That so many women and so many people of color do now go to college and succeed is testament to the uniqueness and triumph of the educational system in the United States.

However, it is true that since the late 80’s, the achievement gap between white students and students of color has been on the rise again.  There is much much research on this phenomenon and what to do about.  One program you mention is the KIPP program which many cities (not just LA) have developed to better educate urban youth.  It has been successful, as have many other programs targeted to a local urban population – part of its success is due to extended staff hours (that are paid for), implementation of well-researched pedagogical developments in urban youth education, smaller class sizes, and a voluntary buy in from the parents of the students who choose to send their students to KIPP schools – parents who are generally a little more present for their children, and must agree to certain stipulations before sending their kids there.  And, if you look at all the research outcomes on KIPP schools, the evidence is mixed and not always as positive as you might have been led to believe.  KIPP is one example of educational innovation.  However, the amount and quality of educational innovation is staggering.  Public school teaching is not the same as when I grew up — that was mostly reading a dry textbook, answering dry questions and listening and / or tuning out a teacher’s lectures.  Nowadays, we public school teachers are ever increasing our knowledge of best practices by reading, collaborating with our colleagues, attending workshops and participating in staff development; we sing, dance and entertain, we teach using visuals, manipulatives, conceptual models, games and oral storytelling; we use primary sources, music, film, documentaries, guest speakers and realia.  When I think about how much this generation of teachers does as opposed to what my teachers did, I almost laugh at the absurdity and the discrepancy.  We are worlds away, and my, we teach better to a much more diverse group of students than the teachers of old ever did.

I, along with many other educational researches, believe that the true systemic problems in education are not due to “lack of choice,” “teachers unions,” “apathetic parents and students,” “relaxed standards,” etc., but rather they are due to the economic disparities in this country and the inequity in educational funding.  Poor kids have schools with less money, period, everywhere in the United States in which this disparity exists.  Poor kids have poorer health and poorer nutrition.  They have higher incidences of trauma, stress, violence in their lives.  They have less access to adult models of success in the community and fewer adults who care for them.  Test scores are always correct in one way – they show us the socio-economic-nutritional-caregiver world that the students bring to the classroom.  And at public schools, we love and teach every one of them for a better price than at a private school.

Examine what San Francisco Public Schools get paid to educate each child:

$4,000-5,000 per year per student (every student accepted regardless of class, sex, religious affiliation, disability or merit)

Examine the tuition of a private school education (each student hand-picked by administrators):

$6,000-12,000 per year (Catholic)
$18,000 Friends School
$21,000 San Francisco Day School

Public schools get more bang for their buck, over and over and over again, and I would like to reiterate, we teach everybody!  Every special need, we will accommodate and abide by the Federal and State mandates!  I will tell you stories if you’d like!

Anyway, I am tired.  I have joys and sadnesses everyday in my classes watching my students learn, struggle to learn, hate to learn, or opt out of learning altogether.  But, after a long day at work, the last thing I want to read is someone I know and love, completely dismiss my profession, my colleagues and the institutions I work for.  Please, please, be more open to learning the complexities, all the greys that make for no easy solutions or answers.  Just like there is no “one” correct way to teach an individual student, there is no one silver bullet solution to mend the problems of poverty and inequity in education.  If you are really interested in some non-teacher public school bashing reform ideas that are based on research, please read some of the articles that one educational reformer, a former professor of mine from Stanford wrote:

http://www.annenberginstitute.org/VUE/summer09/Darling.php

http://www.thenation.com/article/restoring-our-schools

Love,

Tu Sobrina Malinche