December 30, 2006

so, what do I think? #1

I teach high school math in a very poor, very violent neighborhood in a major US city with a really bad school system. I'm a first-year teacher, and it's a mess. My background is intellectual, upper middle class, focused on social responsibility, politically active, and liberal: that describes my parents and grandparents, and the parents of many of my friends. Almost none are teachers. Periodically, people ask what policies I think would improve the public schools. Recently, a stranger on a plane asked. This is the first of what I hope will be an occasional series exploring some possibilities. I'm interested in seeing how my thinking changes over the next year and a half.

To put one of my premises out there: I imagine, as I say these things, a conservative (like one I recently met on a plane) saying that parents should be responsible for these changes; that expectation is not reasonable or realistic, for reasons I might write about later, and really I think it's irrelevant. Do you want students in low-income districts to have the same educational opportunities as students in wealthy districts? Yes or no. If yes, saying parents should be responsible is a cop-out, unless you have a plan to make or help parents be responsible. Without further ado, the proposals.

1. More money. Schools in impoverished areas shouldn't get funding parity with wealthier districts - they should get double the per student funding. Among other things, parents in wealthy districts provide a vast number of resources that poor parents simply cannot provide: graphing calculators that students can use at home, buying college reference books, making sure their students get therapy or medications if they have mental illness, dental care, computers and internet at home - the list goes on. Money is not the only thing my students need, and more could certainly be done with the current budget, but let's be real: many of the people who refuse to throw money at the education of poor children are the same ones who throw money at their own children's education. They're not doing that for nothing.

2. More staff. See #1. Having someone constantly available to manage a student who's out of control (e.g. an office to send that student to) would free up a lot of my time to actually teach. Instead, what happens is that if a student disrupts or endangers the class, I write up a disciplinary referral and it gets dealt with later; if I'm really lucky, someone will be available to take that student, but those people all teach their own classes and are pretty overworked; they also don't have anywhere to put the student where the student will be supervised. In better-functioning schools, you can just send a kid to the office for cursing at you; in my school, no way.

More staff also means smaller class sizes, which, wow. That would be awesome. Thirty-three kids is a lot. Maybe even having two preps be standard - I have that this year, and it's great, and I don't know how I functioned without it for 2 months.

3. Better staff. The quality of most teachers is, well, not stellar. (I include myself in this, though I think one way in which I am unlike many of the other teachers at my school is that I really want to get better.) The recent NYT magazine article about the achievement gap and the KIPP schools casually mentioned that KIPP teachers work 15-16 hour days. That's great for the students, but it's not a national policy solution. You can get a few more smart, motivated, ambitious, etc, people into teaching by upping the mystique, and a lot more by making public schools better work environments, but to do this on a national scale you'll have to up the salaries. That kind of time commitment is what people do in I-banking, where they are making boatloads of money. I'd suggest making teacher schools something like law or MBA programs, where you worry about whether you'll get in and have to be intensely devoted to it for at least a year or two; I'd also suggest having teacher salaries start at $60,000 and go up to $150,000. You could even start lower if you were willing to make the ramp pretty steep. Teaching will never fully compete with Wall Street - that's not the idea. But you want a lot of talented people who have other options? You're going to have to pay for them.

I am not sure if doing that would produce a system where I wanted to work right now. For me, teaching was a step up financially, and I was fine with that. But realistically, money is a great way to attract people to a particular job, and while that kind of environment might make me less interested in teaching now, the money (and the doubtless improved work environment) might also make me more interested in teaching long-term.

4. Better management. See #3 and #1. Management at most public schools is abysmal. I have this fantasy of having professional development that's not a complete waste of my time, seeing the teaching schedules for half-days and special events before the day of, and getting feedback from observations. This, again, you have to pay for.

5. Better staff/management development. I'm going to write more about this another time.

6. For the luvva Pete, can I please just have a curriculum for every class? And maybe a computer in my classroom? And while I'm wishing for the impossible, how about paper for the flippin' copy machine?

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