Episode 19: An F For Public Schools
“The looming societal crisis if we don’t improve our kids’ chances in a broken system.“
I’m giving our public schools an F, that’s the uncomfortable truth.
I’m a product of a public school education. Kindergarten through high school and then I went to Rutgers, which is the State University of New Jersey. I got my first Masters at Montclair, which was another State University in New Jersey. My wife did roughly the same thing. My wife was a teacher. She taught for five years before we had children. She taught everyone from preschool to adults who specialized in Home Economics. Yes, we sent our kids exclusively to private schools, from preschool really, through grammar school and high school and their universities. Our primary and secondary schools today, on the world stage, are embarrassing compared to those in most countries I visit. People flock here from all over the world to go to our colleges and junior colleges and universities and even trade schools. But our public schools are failing.
And here’s the uncomfortable truth about it.
Teachers’ unions launch initiatives solely for themselves. They never, virtually never, launch initiatives for their customers, the students. I remember a guy named Al Shanker who was the notorious President of the American Federation of Teachers, I believe. One of the large unions in New York City was asked why he never put forth initiatives for the education of kids but only for the teachers’ benefit and he said, “When the students vote for me as president of the union, I’ll put initiatives in for the kids.” Teachers advance in schools these days in many cases by moving out of teaching, by becoming guidance counselors or supervisors of curriculum or assistant principals or principals. So if they want to make more money, they get themselves out of the classroom. One of the problems, of course, the catch-22 we’re involved in, is the teachers don’t make enough money. Hello?
Don’t forget, the top scale in New York City, which I just looked up on Google, is $119,000 for a veteran teacher. Now you don’t get that the first year, but you’re not working summers and less and less are you working after school hours. More about that in a moment. For example, when I was in school, they had parent-teacher nights. And you’d come in with your parents, everyone was dressed up and the parents would go to your rooms in the school and talk to your teachers and look at your work and hear from the teacher first-hand how you are doing. Every single parent had a private session with the teacher. Today, in a world of two working parents, more than likely, when are these held? They’re held during the day because teachers don’t want to come in at night. They don’t want to spend the extra time. And so there’s very rarely, today comparably private time between teacher and parent to talk about a child’s progress and advancement and needs.
Mainstreaming robs kids of learning time. It’s wonderful to try to take care of students who are physically or emotionally disadvantaged, but when you mainstream in a classroom, it can be extraordinarily disruptive, even with a teaching aide present. Teachers aren’t prepared to deal with some of these behaviors. At a college year, where I serve as a guest instructor from time to time, in one recent year, the professor told me that one of the students had Tourette’s Syndrome. And I met with the student and her before the class and the kid was wonderful. He told me about what to expect, in fact, he exhibited the symptoms right there in front of me, cursing and frequent and pronounced body ticks and screaming.
And sure enough, in the class, he did the same thing. Now the class was used to it and they allowed him a lot of slack, but I would say that we got about 60% or 70% done of what we would have normally done at 100% and while there’s an argument to be made and many do, that it’s important for kids to learn how to deal with people who are different, you have to make a balance here between how much learning to cope with people who are different merits learning less academically in the class because that’s what happens. Teachers are not prepared for students who clear a desk, who assault other students and who are violent or loud and it hurts the learning.
We don’t teach accurate history anymore in schools, we teach politically correct history. We teach history that’s depended upon the teachers’ political leanings. We’re not teaching accurate stuff to our kids. When is that going to be corrected? It certainly isn’t corrected in college where you’re dealing largely with a left-leaning faculty unless you do extraordinary work on yourself. It’s almost impossible today to fire a teacher who’s not good. And I mean impossible. In New York, there’s something called a rubber room. I kid you not. And that’s where teachers go because they can’t be fired and they’re paid and they spend all day in this room where they play cards, they read books, they play Scrabble, but they can’t leave because if they don’t go to the room and report, they don’t collect any money. So they spend the entire school day, whatever it is, 8-3, 9-4, whatever, in this room called the rubber room. Now some of them are there because they were watching porn on computers in school. Some of them are there because they’ve been accused of pedophilia. Some are there because they’ve been accused of incompetence. But it’s very, very difficult to fire a teacher in the union and sometimes it takes years and these teachers go every day and report to this rubber room and collect their money.
I was at an insurance company, a client, and we found one of the underwriters looking at porn on his computer and we saw it visually, unequivocally, there was evidence, took a picture. He was fired within a week. Human Resources got involved and he was fired. There’s no excuse for that. We won’t allow it in an insurance company where you’re dealing with colleagues, but we allow it in schools. That is, we don’t fire these people. School boards are politicized, and the elected ones are often composed of people who have ambitions to do other things, like serve on the city council or run for state senate or run for the legislature and the school board is just a stepping stone for them. When teachers complain about politicized school boards, they’re quite right. But we don’t always get talented people on school boards who know about education. There are people on some local school boards here who send their kids to private school. That’s nice, but what are you doing on the public school board? If you have a kid, they ought to be in that school, don’t you think?
Schools today are sloppy. They might have advanced labs and they might have gleaming halls, but a lot of the teachers look like homeless people. There are no suits and ties. There are no dresses. There are jeans, even t-shirts, it’s sloppy and it lowers respect. It lowers respect for teachers, it lowers respect for students. It degrades the environment. It degrades the learning. Sports in high school, especially, often trump academics. There’s a school here in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, where the school board decided that a D is sufficient to keep you off the athletic team. So if you have a D in any course, it means you’re not applying yourself correctly so you have to remove distractions and you’re off the football team or the basketball team or the baseball team or the chess team. So many parents complained, that they changed it to an F. So you could get Ds and still play sports. You had to have an F, you had to fail in order not to play on the team.
I was at a retirement party when my sister retired. My sister was a teacher and became a guidance counselor. She and another teacher, who became a guidance counselor, retired. I guess my sister at the time was about 60 years old, maybe younger, maybe in her late 50s. And it was a nice party, there must have been 30 or 40 colleagues there and there must have been 30 or 40 other people there, like me, relatives. And they presented them with gifts. And when the other teacher, my sister’s friend, got up to give her comments, she gave the bird, she gave the middle finger to the governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, because he opposed Teachers’ Unions, he opposed some of the things they were trying to get away with in the schools. In public, in front of strangers and former students, she gave the finger. That’s what we’re seeing in public schools. So please don’t tell me that it doesn’t matter how you dress and how you act because if civility is gone, most of learning is gone.
There’s an abandonment in our public schools of rewards for excellence. There used to be a top ten list in high schools. There used to be a valedictorian, a salutatorian, second place, a lot of schools have done away with them. It’s participation that counts, not how you finish. Why should we award 10 people if 200 other people will feel, well, inferior. Of course, they didn’t do as much work, they don’t have as much talent, they didn’t get the same grades, they’re not going to go to the same colleges, but we got to save their self-esteem. What we’re really doing of course, is falsely building their self-esteem, which is going to fail miserably when they find out in the real world that nobody cares if they participate, they only care if they work.
So what’s to be done about all of this? I know you’re waiting for that. What’s to be done about all this uncomfortable truth in our public education? Some of you listening have kids in public school or will have kids in public school. Some of you have kids in college who are struggling because they went to public school. Ironically, the first thing you have to do is pay teachers more. That’s right, we have to pay teachers more. Teachers should be able to make a lot of money, but to do that we have to do the following. We have to improve education for teachers. Teacher education right now sucks eggs. It’s awful. There’s no content. You take stupid education courses. Most history teachers aren’t very adept at history. Math teachers know just some of the basics, but not detailed and in-depth math. There’s a dearth of profound knowledge in the professions because of the courses teachers take in school. In fact, the research shows that teachers score lower on SATs than any other profession. Meaning the profession is drawing people who haven’t applied themselves a lot, who aren’t among the best and the brightest and attend just to barely get by. That’s not good. We want the best and the brightest in teaching.
They take these vacant educational courses so they can sail through teacher training, but they don’t master the content. They also have some of the lowest grade point averages of any students in school. And they often choose teaching because they can’t get into any other schools except teacher courses, teachers’ curriculum in teacher-oriented colleges or they want to avoid large scale debt and these schools are inexpensive. Now that’s a problem, for everyone. The kind of indebted issue incur, but to drive people to teaching just because they don’t want to incur debt and they can’t afford any better and they’re not the best and the brightest, that’s not good. So the quid pro quo is, we need to pay teachers a lot more but we need to demand a lot more out of their training, out of their education, out of their preparation.
Number two, we have to eliminate the property taxes, the financial basis for school systems. I live in an affluent community here and despite the fact my kids didn’t go to public school, still I happily paid my tax and 60%, 6-0 percent of the taxes here go to the public school systems. Multimillion dollar budgets, as you can imagine. I don’t mind paying that because I believe we have to educate our kids and they will give it back in terms of what they contribute to society. However, what happens is, if you’re not in an affluent community, you don’t get as much money because the property values are lower. And where do we need the best teachers? In the inner cities. We need the best teachers where there isn’t affluence. But that’s not where they go because the salaries aren’t as high and the facilities aren’t as good and the opportunities aren’t as great.
And so we have to change this ridiculous system of property tax to fund the schools. We either have to level it out across the state and have it apportioned, or we need to find a different way to finance them. It can’t be simply local property taxes, unwieldy and it’s unfair. We’re generating because of this property tax and the inequality among the teachers in schools, we’re generating a knowledge divide. We’re engaged right now in identity politics in the United States. You know you’re a hyphen something. You’re Hispanic-American, you’re African-American or you’re Canadian-American. I don’t know what you are, but the fact of the matter is, the real divide, the important divide is going to be the knowledge divide. We can’t afford that as a nation.
Number three, we have to subordinate athletics to grades. Period. There are no free rides. You know, college is something else. I’m not going to get into that here. College football is like a minor league team for the pros and we’re not doing well by those athletes either. We’re not educating them. But I’m talking about public schools here in the primary and secondary areas and we have to stop letting athletes glide by with tutors and forgiveness and dumb courses, just because they’re athletes. It’s not fair to them and it’s not fair to society.
Number four, we have to disempower the unions. I can see some of you out there whose heads are exploding. That’s too bad. Striking is illegal for teachers. In most cases, it’s illegal. And so they shouldn’t be allowed to do it. Period. Number two, it’s got to be year-round work. If we’re going to pay more, it needs to be year-round work. No summers off. There are things to do over the summer. We can hold remedial classes over the summer. We can hold classes for kids who want to get out of school faster, in the summer. But it has to be year round work.
We have to make extracurricular help mandatory. If you’re a teacher, you’re making good money, you’re working year round, you coach a team, you’re there for parent teachers-nights, you do tutoring, you help with the class play, you help with field trips, you do something, but teaching involves things outside the classroom. That’s the way it works. And we have to move all those parent-teacher meetings to the evening.
I don’t think that global warming is the problem that should be on our mind right now. Because this, our education system is really the looming disaster. Before the sea levels rise to engulf Long Island, before the forests are burned to the ground by the sun, we won’t be here anyway because we will have been made too stupid to continue to exist.
If we don’t do something about our schools, that’s going to be the uncomfortable truth.