Has Teaching Been Rendered Impossible in Government Schools?

In 1987, seventeen years after my high school graduation following fourteen years (including pre-school and kindergarten) in Washington, DC public (government) schools, I returned to teach mathematics. I was not prepared for the sweeping changes that had occurred in the interim, and were to continue throughout my next fifteen years of labor there.

The discipline of arithmetic, for example, had, it seems, been about 90% eliminated from the curriculum there and in government schools nationwide. And all of the more advanced level math courses had been watered down commensurately. Emphasis on arithmetic, you see, had been supplanted by early emphasis on higher level courses like algebra, geometry, and probability and statistics, and on something more or less new called “math problem solving.” Of course, no meaningful learning was taking place in those higher level courses, since that would require mastery of arithmetic. And no meaningful math problems were being solved, for want of arithmetic competence.

I actually did not figure all of this out until many years later, owing to the fact that I generally never taught any courses nominally below the Algebra I level. Until the last several years, during which I headed a combination lower and middle school at the charter level, and later tutored quite a few suburban students from those grade levels, I had simply assumed that the startling across-the-board lack of skills, knowledge, and comprehension even among my brightest entering pupils had been the result merely of bad teaching and social promotion in the DC Public Schools (DCPS).

Arithmetic was not the only institution that had gone by the wayside. Teaching in general had been all but banned. A genre of lesson planning and required “pedagogies” had sprung up that allowed for a maximum of about ten minutes of actual teaching per class period. The remaining class time had to be devoted to a combination of “touchy-feely” techniques, politically correct propaganda, and “activities.”

Additionally, teachers had been de-fanged. For one thing, one could no longer eject disruptive pupils. This was particularly vexing to me, for a pair of reasons. First, I recalled that in my student days the abject fear of the consequences of a hypothetical ejection had been enough to keep my classmates and me perpetually in line. Second, by 1987, government school students were, as a rule, completely devoid of personal responsibility when it came to behavior — at least in the DCPS schools where I was to teach.

Any teacher who put students out of class — on other than the rarest of occasions — became branded with the indelible stigma of having poor social director skills. Administrators did not actually use the term “social director” — the euphemism was “classroom management.” In any event, it was clear that what administrators wanted were classroom managers qua social directors, and not teachers; teachers, by definition, risked dismissal.

Compounding the fact that one generally did not dare evict a student — no matter what that student's deportment — there was now a slate of parameters on teacher classroom deportment that had not existed previously. For instance, one was not permitted to tell one's pupils (who generally chatted, argued, screamed, and offered a cacophony of other noises their entire time in a classroom) to shut up. This was something of which students were keenly aware. In fact, pupils were the ones who informed me of this rule (indignantly and on countless occasions).

Nor could one raise one's voice to one's students. Twice administrators reprimanded me for shouting at extremely unruly pupils. On another occasion, I was seriously admonished for describing a pupil as “immature.”

In another school, I actually sidestepped, for a time, the ramifications of the ejection prohibition by using my cell phone minutes calling parents of misbehavers (on the spot). When an administrator got word, she forbade me to continue calling parents, and demanded my phone. I refused to hand it over and was fired (on the spot). In other instances I was fired for blocking the pen of a student as she tried to write on a brand-new desk, and for assaulting the fist of one pupil and the elbow of another — both times with my jaw.

The best-rated teachers — the ones lavished with awards — in these schools were the ones who kept their pupils the busiest and gave the highest grades (and whose pupils — judging by their condition upon entering subsequent classes in which I received them — learned the least). I chuckle when I hear outsiders criticize government schools for low pupil promotion rates. If there were any justice in these schools, next to nobody would ever advance in grade (at least in terms of the academic achievement realities that prevail). Certainly, very few would have passed any of the classes I took as a child, had they learned as little as today's pupils learn.

These appalling achievement deficiencies were the norm in DCPS, but since my departure I have discovered that the affluent suburban DC government school systems seem to be doing, if anything, an even worse job. My vaults are full of pre-tests of middle schoolers — in some cases honor students — who failed to pass my old inner-city charter school's final exams (passing of which was required for advancement) for the first grade, or even kindergarten. Picture “advanced placement” 4th, 7th, or even 8th graders who do not know their addition tables, or the names (much less the sounds) of the vowels.

I not so long ago looked into some federal funds for pre-school reading programs under the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. I was initially optimistic, as I had had excellent recent success getting three- and four-year-olds reading fluidly (as high as the upper middle-school level, in terms of proficiency). On inspection of the grant offer materials, I found I did not qualify — for the simple reason that the government “absolutely” did not encourage the teaching of actual reading to pre-schoolers. Recognition of the letters of the alphabet was the maximum acceptable. If you are considering sending your kids to government schools (or have some there already), be advised that the above account accurately describes such schools. The only variance pertains to the “chatted, argued, screamed…” passage. That state of affairs, you see, exists only in those classrooms whose misguided adult patrons attempt to actually be teachers. Administrators take care of such infidels in short order — by making it crystal clear to these poor souls' pupils that they (the administrators) do not support them (the poor souls). By now, most classroom managers are compliant in their expected roles as social directors, abdicating these roles just long enough to cover the pretentious, perfunctory pabulum required on today's standardized tests. Such classrooms are uniformly harmonious most of the time.

You do not have to accept that there is an organized conspiracy to keep our kids ignorant to get the picture. As long as you realize that things are exactly as they would be if there were such a conspiracy, that will suffice.

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