Public Education is a Microcosm of America
Our Public Schools Mirror the Tenets of Democracy
I recently had to ‘unfriend’ someone off of my Facebook page. I hadn’t known this gentleman since high school (and we’re talking 40 years), so I had no idea he was vehemently against public education. When I wrote my feelings of pride for having been a public school educator for 36 years, you would have thought I told him that I was a Soviet spy. He literally yelled at me through cyber space as if I were the enemy; and, he wouldn’t let up. I simply replied, “You have disrespected everything I stand for as an educator, and all the years I have devoted to 1,000 or so students in my career. We’re done.”
I understand the folks who think privatizing public education is an option. We live in a free country and we are encouraged to think independently. However, this is my point exactly. Public education represents the freedoms of a country that broke away from being ruled by an English monarchy where only the privileged were privately educated. Like the Statue of Liberty, the very tenets of public education in America can be summarized thusly, “Bring me every child, no matter what race, religion, or socio-economic background, and I will do my best to educate this child to compete in a free society with all its inherent rewards.”
When people only look at state test scores and the physical condition of our schools in poorer areas, I can see their concern. What many people don’t understand is that state test scores do not measure what children learn about being successful in life, nor do the buildings that house them. And furthermore, the physical conditions of our schools have to do with local constituents who choose not to vote for bonds that will improve these schools. Having been on the inside of old portables for 36 years in California, a state that is struggling, I think I have some insight into the real workings of a public school and all the things the political media does not tell you. Suffice it to say, I grew up without extra money for private schools, but my public school education gave me a very meaningful life and career.
Test Scores Do Not Reflect the Diversity and Socio-economic Levels of Any One Classroom. When you are given 34 students of all ethnic backgrounds, which include language barriers, you aren’t going to see homogenous test scores. What you will see in this classroom is a dedicated teacher allowing each student to blossom at his or her own pace with a tough curriculum. A good teacher builds in multi-media lessons to download new vocabulary and cultural nuances of English that are exclusive to the American experience. Studies show that language learners take anywhere from five to seven years to move beyond playground English into academic English. My Latino students, whose families came from Mexico, didn’t show grade level test scores in Language Arts (though they did in math), but they grew at least a year for a year’s worth of teaching. From year to year my language learners grew 1 to 2 years in English. They also learned how to feel proud of their hard work and gained much confidence to keep attaining new goals. Even in classrooms where there isn’t much diversity, many of these “middle American” students come from impoverished homes where parents are struggling to pay bills. Teachers work just as hard to give these children tools for academic and emotional accomplishments. Public schools in well-to-do neighborhoods generally fare better on test scores because most parents are educated and teach the value education in the home. However, children are children, and there are great teachers in all types of public schools across America. I’d like to see a state test that measures pride and self-worth because that is what motivates a child to learn.
A public school teacher’s work is never done because of his or her dedication to the children. For 36 years, I worked late evenings and weekends to ensure that each and every one of my students had proper lessons and materials. Ask any good teacher about their hours of prep work after the children leave, and the hours they spend at home worrying about the struggling and at-risk students. Politicians expect teachers to work miracles without a budget for upgraded technologies, math manipulatives and art supplies. In California, more than 30 children are being squeezed into classrooms only made for 20 to 25 students. An average elementary school class size in California is 33. Many high schools in California have classroom counts of 40-plus students. Educational bonds for school improvement have all but dried up in states that do not support funding public education.
Now, imagine only having two 10 minute breaks and a 20 minute lunch to eat and use the restroom (the other 20 minutes are spent with students who need extra help). For the rest of the day, a teacher has to watch and care for thirty-some students with thirty-some separate needs and wants at any given moment, which means a teacher’s attention can never wane. I challenge any politician to keep up this pace for one week, let alone for ten months.
Many of you are saying, “This is why we want to phase out public education; too many children, not enough materials. See, it doesn’t work.” Ah, but to the contrary, my friends. The people who choose to teach in public schools do it willingly with a passion that surpasses all the obvious obstacles. In a sense, we are super heroes. We choose to stay because of the children. And we work harder because we know each child is loved and valued; and, each child deserves the best of us. (I am not even going to address the fact that there are poor teachers because they are only a small minority of the teaching force in America. If you don’t believe me, visit any random classroom in any state and see for yourself. Every professional career in America has poor performing employees, so my comparisons are commensurate against the total workforce in this country.)
If you complain about public schools, you are complaining about America. America, like our public schools, is made up of every race, religion and socio-economic status. We welcome the rest of the world to join our Democracy in a land that encourages diversity. Are there problems opening our doors to the world? You bet there are. One only needs to research our controversial immigration policies and current political climates. For the intent of this article, I am not addressing a political stance either way. I am underlining the reality that our country can’t do everything for all people. However, the bigger picture here is that public schools open their doors to everyone in order to give all children a chance to live productively in a free society. Can teachers do it alone for all students? Of course not. However, with strong parental support, we come very close. If we do away with public education, we are on a slippery slope toward reverting back to a monarchy where there are only “the haves and the have nots.” Every child deserves a chance to succeed, which has always been the American way.