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.


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:




Tu Sobrina Malinche

trying to understand the Common Core (the email that started it all)

As you know me, you know I read a lot about education.  I love it.  It’s what I often do instead of lesson planning and grading late at night.  Sometimes I forward articles to my friends and colleagues.  Lately, I’ve been reading lots and lots of articles both for and against the Common Core State Standards, now adopted by almost all the states.

I thought I would include you in on this email, and ask your permission to let me send you more articles in the future.  I don’t do Facebook much, and I don’t have an actual blog, but I do like the email venue.  Please let me know if you want off of my own personal email list – in which I may vent on matters of education in the larger scheme of “what is wrong with this world and what can I do about it?”  I won’t be offended if you need off of this list – I get it – there is too much to read these days.  However, if your name is Hernán, and you happen to live with me, you are in for the ride – sorry.  I don’t intend to send more than one or two articles a week.  I think I can live with that.  And maybe I will just stop one day, when I get bored, or I get involved with saving bonobos instead.
If you want to share my emails with others, that is fine – I will try to maintain some professional demeanor for the public gaze.
So here goes (with some links attached).
The brand new Common Core State Standards – what to think? are they good? or are they bad? do they help teachers, students, schools? or not?
So I’ve been to a few professional development trainings on the Common Core and how they pertain to my subject area – Spanish.  In this, so far, I have gleaned that my subject area needs to underscore literacy skills and critical thinking skills, skills that World Language teachers have been improving upon each year since the AP test was updated to be a more rigorous and academic test.  Yay!  And, they seem to correspond well with the lovely 5 C’s of the National Foreign Language Standards (Cultures, Communities, Communication, Connections and Comparisons). The Common Core is not too frightening or threatening to my little world.
However, for many other teaching areas, the new standards are overwhelming, confusing and controversial. I want to know whether I should support them or not, or how I can support them or get rid of them.

And, as a mama, I am also interested in what is happening at the elementary school level.  I read sometimes that the new Common Core standards are too weighty for young minds, and that the teachers scoff at what is being asked of their little charges.  And sometimes I read about the excitement and joy of teachers who are embracing the new standards.  At times the Common Core standards seem to allow for more creativity and depth of knowledge – all that stuff that had been squashed by the old California content standards.  I hear that some teachers who have been around the block are pleased to go back to standards that allow for more teacher choice in curricular materials and require more engaging real life experiences that used to be part and parcel of elementary school education.
I generally try to stay positive on the matter of the new standards, although many smart educators say that the Common Core is the latest plot to ruin public education by creating benchmarks that most of our students will fail, causing parents and politicians to send our public school dollars to corrupt private entities that run sham charter schools.  Many respected educators and researchers say that the Common Core has the same fundamental problem as every other educational reform – that the real problem in education is poverty – and that raising the bar on young children will not change the contexts of their lives that impede their learning and self-empowerment.  In this, I generally agree that we will find no solutions without investing a great deal more in public education – creating schools where teachers make a high wage and have time to develop and plan with colleagues, along with creating a society in which companies can’t opt out of investing in the countries in which they operate and pay their own employees a living wage, and a solid health care system that is available to everyone, no matter how poor their salary.
So, I leave you with a couple of interesting links – one is an article by Diane Ravitch on why she cannot support the new Common Core State Standards; and one is an article by E.D. Hirsch explaining his Common Core knowledge curricular materials that support the Common Core with specific grade by grade content knowledge.  He uses a 4th grade curriculum example for social studies – perfect for me since my kid is currently in 4th grade!
Maestra Malinche
And here is my education quote for the day:  “The great aim of education is not knowledge but action.”   Herbert Spencer   English philosopher (1820 – 1903)


I have no idea what the answer is on Honors classes and heterogeneous classrooms.  I debated this one in my Education program 10 years ago (no one got to choose the side they argued for, and I got to argue for tracking), but I feel like I have a new epiphany every day I teach about which way it should go.

I teach at a highly tracked school with the richest members of the community and the poorest immigrant kids from Tonga and Latin America in my district.  My school is nothing but tracked.  There are virtually no Latino, black or Tongan kids names on the GATE lists (unless someone like me nominates one which means that not a single teacher in their 7-10 years of schooling noticed that that this kid was bright); and the honors and AP classes are packed with Asian and white kids at a 40% Latino school.  WTF? I mean this just seems wrong, and it is wrong because common sense dictates that smart kids don’t belong to only a couple of ethnic groups.  But this is what happens over and over again, and teachers, we love to try to turn it upside down.  I mean, really, who can be a teacher who doesn’t believe that every kid is capable?  If you believe that black and brown kids were born dumb, well you would have chosen a different line of work in this day and age.
Some teachers love tracking; some teachers hate it.  Most teachers feel uncomfortable and have mixed ideas about it.  Our one and only black teacher who teaches World History bemoans the day that AP Euro started being offered to sophomores because it meant that there was one less opportunity for kids to actually engage academically with each other across the color and socio-economic divide, and in a World History Class, no less.  And now, white and Asian students can learn only Euro history and get away with it, along with their other 3-5 tracked classes of the day.  And tracking doesn’t just track students; it tracks teachers.  Many of the same teachers teach Honors classes year after year.  The ELD teachers at my school are seen as second class citizens by many of the Honors English teachers because of the content that they teach and their students.  It is actually incredible to see some of these interactions of snubbing and dismissiveness toward the ELD teachers, who, being realistic here, usually work twice or three times as hard creating lessons as an Honors English teacher, and went to the same colleges and read the same books as their peers. Duh. I know it seems like I am making this up, but it really does happen.  I am just as sure that several Lowell teachers in this district look down at their colleagues who teach at Mission High, yet pat themselves on the back when they look at the Lowell API scores, as if the teachers actually accomplished that.  But, when Mission High had their API scores started go up — that feat actually did require some heavy lifting and some amazing teaching.
After my one year stint teaching the lowest performing Latino students in a Spanish class for Native Speakers, I said never again would I subject myself to the sociological battle that ensued in which the students themselves argued with me that Latinos are indeed stupider than whites and Asians.  I realized that the “sweat hog” tracked kids basically spend all day with each other and have never known what higher achieving students do in their classes and assume the worst about themselves.  I even started getting shit by my administrators and the dean for sending down so many referrals, and I started wondering what an Honors English teacher would do — an Honors teacher who has rarely had to write a discipline referral on a kid.  Seriously, I got crap because I chose to teach the lower performing kids and tried to discipline them for nasty behavior.  Who wants to teach in that environment, seriously?  No wonder no one wants to teach at lower performing schools — everyone is mean to you, not just the students.  So I took a different tactic the next semester.   I started elevating some of these kids into my Honors Spanish class at the semester just so some of these kids (including some of the worst offenders) would have access to higher level ideas and functional academic behaviors in their peers.   Each year I have tweaked the program so that no Spanish teacher in my department ever has to deal with a class of purely unmotivated and angry kids who have hated school for a long time and have never gotten to be around honors kids doing interesting things.  Now we mix them into other classes where, wow — many of these kids perform and achieve at a higher level.  Learning is so amazingly social and psychological, and the trick seems to be to have kids be around as many motivated kids as possible; yet not in a class that is so far above them that they feel completely stupid.
We all judge.  Every student judges himself and forms a belief about their academic potential, and when they are in tracked classes they believe what the tracking is telling them, and that is usually a racial, if not racist message.  And teachers judge.  And I judge.  And yet I am bewildered by how students show me different sides of themselves each year, each semester.  My super low level special ed student from last year’s Native Speakers class begged me to let her take my Honors Spanish class, and I really didn’t want to let her.  She had so many problems with memorization and deep understanding, I thought that she would die in a more rigorous class, and yet she didn’t.  She freaking completely turned around 180% and articulates her opinions as well as any other kid in my class and passes my hard grammar benchmark tests the first try, unlike many of my white and Asian straight A students.
The suck about tracking is that it is always so wrong, even in one summer a student can change their mind about themselves and their goals.  And all of the current research on intelligence and performance is about the psychological and sociological games being played, how we all learn more or less the same; and thus more and more teachers are tapping into this research to change young minds about how they think about themselves and their potential.  I don’t know if this is the research that SFUSD is looking at, but I am the first one to argue for fewer divisions up until age 14 or 16, deeper and more meaningful content for everyone, then let the young adults figure out what track to take next and give them some vocational options.  It also seems to me that SFUSD, or the lack of leadership at many of the schools, may mistake “equity” for teaching to the lowest common denominator.  And this is probably more a societal error because all of us are just accepting test-driven lowest common denominator curriculum as the nature of public schools these days.  The trust between the public and the schools diminishes and diminishes, and by taking away “honors,” the school system alienates the educated families further.  And yet, many many teachers want more heterogeneous classrooms because we, as teachers, are more engaged by them, as they engage more of our students.
But my rant doesn’t mean that I think that all kids should be together all the time either.  When grouping students in any class, kids need to be grouped with others at their level much of the time.  In my class, I think super carefully about how to group the kids.  Of course, sharp kids need to be challenged.  Sometimes this means that the uber sharp “I want to learn Spanish right now” kid has to work with the kids who arrived in this country two weeks ago, and won’t get to use a word of English; sometimes this means two brilliant creative story writers work together to create a dialogue; sometimes this means two weak students have to struggle together and gain some confidence in themselves.  And sometimes brilliant kids flop; and sometimes weak kids surprise you (and I get giddy when all of my preconceived notions are spoiled again!)
If schools are taking away rich engaging curriculum from kids, and teaching to the test, it is not in the name of “equity,” but in the name of poor teaching or poor leadership, and definitely poor politics.  If you have to take an art class away, you better have a lower student to teacher ratio in teaching something else.  Equity for me and my cohorts means providing amazing teachers for everyone, and having a full well-rounded curriculum for everyone.  Heterogeneous classes are part of how to do this; and specialized leveled classes are part of how to do this.  (Currently, the state of California mandates that all 9th graders take Algebra, even if they came here from rural Guatemala speaking Mayan and can only count to 10, it is illegal to teach them anything except Algebra, until they can be tested for Special Ed).  There is no one approach that will work all the time, and leadership has to figure out the best way to balance it, and create trust with the community in creating this balance.
Maestra Malinche