School’s out for summer, but education is still making news:
* Parents in New York City sued their school board on July 3 because “tenure laws and protections for incompetent instructors deprive students of a constitutionally guaranteed ‘sound basic education’.” The lawsuit followed on the heels of a decision in which a Los Angeles judge struck down teacher tenure laws that allowed “incompetent instructors to remain in the classroom.”
* Bill Gates told Los Alamos National Laboratory employees on June 30 that “eradicating malaria, tuberculosis, and polio is easier than fixing the United States’ education system.” The Microsoft co-founder added that new educational technology will help, but it tends to benefit only those kids who are motivated — “and the one thing we have a lot of in the United States is unmotivated students.”
* Closer to home, Michael Sharpe, CEO of Family Urban Schools of Excellence (FUSE) and Hartford’s Jumoke Academy, a charter school, resigned June 21 “after his criminal past was revealed in news reports.” In addition, two other administrators at FUSE resigned shortly after Sharpe’s departure.
What do all of these news stories have in common, besides the obvious focus on education?
In short, they all demonstrate the basic fact that perfect schools do not exist.
While I’m breaking no new ground here, the “educational experts” and “business leaders” would have us believe that there exist simple ways to “fix our broken schools.”
For starters, just eliminate teacher tenure, which supposedly prevents school boards from firing “grossly ineffective” teachers. Curiously, one teacher at the center of the Los Angeles court case, Christine McLaughlin, was simultaneously deemed “grossly ineffective” and “teacher of the year.”
So which is it?
Maybe charter schools — where unions and teacher tenure are largely absent — are the answer. Such schools routinely attract the brightest college graduates to teach in their classrooms, but they also have been known to exploit their teachers and students if they please.
Moreover, many of the recent graduates who start their careers as charter school teachers also leave those schools — and their careers — much earlier and more frequently than teachers in public schools. In fact, “charter networks are developing what amounts to a youth cult in which teaching for two to five years is seen as acceptable and, at times, even desirable.”
Not surprisingly, such teacher turnover results in lower student achievement.
Perhaps charter schools are not the answer, either.
Bill Gates was correct to recognize the challenges of “fixing” the U.S. educational system. Even if all students came to school rested, fed, and “motivated” — a missing factor that even Gates acknowledges — schools would be hard-pressed to meet the needs of every single student.
The United States is a diverse country with families of myriad cultures and economic positions. What might work in L.A. does not necessarily work in Hartford. What might work in Hartford does not necessarily work in Darien. What might work in Darien does not necessarily work in Winsted.
And this says nothing of the challenges facing individual teachers.
“The hard part of teaching,” writes teacher/blogger Peter Greene, “is coming to grips with this: There is never enough. There is never enough time. There are never enough resources. There is never enough you.”
Greene explains that “every day is still educational triage. You will pick and choose your battles, and you will always be at best bothered, at worst haunted, by the things you know you should have done but didn’t. Show me a teacher who thinks she’s got everything all under control and doesn’t need to fix a thing for next year, and I will show you a lousy teacher. The best teachers I’ve ever known can give you a list of exactly what they don’t do well enough yet.”
The life of a teacher, essentially, is a microcosm of public schools, where people work hard every day to serve all students despite the cruel reality that every kid will not succeed, regardless of what is done for him or her.
In the end, education is a daunting and complicated endeavor that has no easy answers. Or, as Bill Gates says, it’s not nearly as straightforward as finding a cure for tuberculosis.
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who also teaches courses in journalism and media literacy at Haddam-Killingworth High School.