National Public Education

A Review of “The Battle for Room 314″

Ed Boland has written a good book about the trials and tribulations of a new teacher in the New York City Schools.  He tells a good story, with engaging anecdotes about the many interesting and problematic children he meets in his classroom.  He's honest, hardworking, and clearly cares about the kids.  And, by the end of the year, he gets it; he knows what to do: be consistent, plan thoroughly, set up routines that work and keep at them, find mentors, ask questions.  The fact that he probably knew all along that he would write this book must have helped him teach, since it forced him to watch the kids carefully, (since he was going to write about them) and this is the key to good teaching. (That might actually be good advice to a young teacher: pretend you are going to write a book about each one of the children in your class.)

Where I, another ex-NYC teacher, differ from Mr Boland, though, is where he talks about what we should do about these school problems.  He has a lot of good ideas: that we should do something about integration, and teacher training, and the out-of-school challenges of the students (such as their medical needs) and the level of funding for schools in poor areas, and the overall level of poverty, but leaves it at that, the naming of the problems.  This is not enough; it leaves the door open to the kind of despair and sadness that so many have about these problems.  At a minimum, we need to figure out which of these areas we should focus on; which have the best chance of succeeding and so improving the schools.

Using that rubric, we should probably toss out the first issue he mentions, integration. Of course it is a problem, and could be worked on through bussing or other ways to zone the schools, but you have to admit that the time is not ripe for this.  Too many people remember the problems we had when we worked on this issue the last time around.  It is simply not going to happen in the near future.

The next is funding.  I agree, this is one of the crucial needs for the public schools -- more attention to how they are funded.  The problem I have with Mr. Boland's view is that he talks mostly about the need to "equalize" funding between the rich and poor.  Wouldn't it be more logical simply to work on getting more funding? Everyone talks about the need to make the funding more equal, but is this the way any other business would go about fixing this problem?  Would Mr Boland himself ever say that the problem in his fund-raising business is that the donors are not equal?  Is this really an issue?  Don't we simply want more funding for the low-end schools, and need better ways of getting this?  Trying to get equality seems to me to raise all sorts of problems that we don't really need to raise.  Just get more money.

I also agree that teacher training needs to be improved, and that the key would be to tie it more directly, as he says,  to "real-world scenarios about how to teach and manage kids."  But wouldn't this then have to be arranged by the school districts themselves, or the states, since it would involve actual in-school activities?  But have they ever shown any interest in this?  Do they even keep track of which teachers are doing well and which aren't, and why?  That is the first problem to be solved if you want better teacher training; why don't the people in charge, at the district and state level, seem to care about it?  And, as readers of this blog know, I think this is because the outcomes from public education, good and bad, leave the district and the state, and so do not provide a benefit to these organizations, or at least only a partial benefit, and that means they have little incentive to improve the schools, or the teacher training that would lead to this. That problem does have a solution, a national one.

It is interesting that Mr. Boland says that a Harvard education professor helped him write this last chapter.  But he has already said that our schools of education are "an industry of mediocrity."  He would have done better to ponder these issues on his own. He, himself, has had the experience in the classroom; he is the one closest to the problems, and so most able to see them clearly.  With that knowledge he is more qualified to figure these issues out.

The most disappointing aspect of this book are the last paragraphs, where Mr Boland suggests that the best solution to our school problems would be to "end poverty."  Isn't this what ever young teacher comes up with, usually sometime around Christmas of their first year, when they realize that everything would be great if these kids were more middle class?  And don't most teachers eventually realize that education, hello, is one of the best ways to accomplish this, so he might as well get to work and do that, and stop worrying about something he has no control over?

And besides, let him look around his own classroom, and think about the relationship between wealth and academic success.  Is it really that strong?  Aren't there all sorts of bad rich kids and good poor ones? The worst kid I ever taught was one of the richest; he didn't even notice I was in the classroom.  I know there is data that shows this link, but does it really show that money is the main difference?  Isn't it more that a stable family and loving parents makes the difference, and that these people tend also to do better in their jobs, so end up being better off than those without these qualities?  Are we going to fix, then, that parent problem?  Not quickly.  The best we, as teachers, can do is teach well and create a new generation of loving parents.  That would work.

Peter Dodington

March 4, 2017







On this Christmas Eve I want to tell you a story about a Christmas morning many years ago, and what it says about the need to improve our schools.

My first teaching job was at a public high school on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, high up on the northern plains of eastern Montana, where it always snowed sideways.   I was living alone, but had been invited, at the last minute, to my girl-friend's house for Christmas dinner.  She lived on the western side of the state, though, about 400 miles away, so I was up at 3 am to drive to the train that would take me there.

As I slowly drove through the snow-covered town, I came across one of my students, Mitty. He had been drinking, I could see, and was wandering around in the night.  He stopped and we chatted some.  He was a big, good-looking Indian kid, about 15, who always seemed to be in trouble of one kind or another -- fights, petty crime, some jail time, spotty attendance at school -- but who was always friendly to everyone and had a great smile.  We wished each other a Merry Christmas and I went on my way.

To him, Christmas was just another day.  I was pretty sure there were not many presents waiting for him.  I don't think his parents were in the picture at all, so he stayed with various relatives.  Holidays were actually a difficult time for most of those kids from broken families, since emotions ran high and there were often more problems than usual.  I knew that he often got into fights with the men who were supposed to be taking care of him.  No one had jobs; everyone drank a lot.

I was living alone, too, and had a hard time dealing with holidays myself, but at least there was one family that wanted to take care of me this particular day.  I don't think Mitty could say that.  There was no one, really, who was watching over him.  That was why, in part, he got into so much trouble.  As teachers often figure out about the troublesome kids, they act up because they so want to connect with someone, even if this has to be in a negative way.  He was very lonely.

I think of scenes like this when I hear people say that the central problem in education is the poverty of the children.  You hear the comment, from quite intelligent people, that we will never solve the problems of our schools until we solve the problems of poverty.  That is it not the schools, per se, that need to be fixed, but our society in general.

But what does that mean?  That children like Mitty cannot ever learn?  That there is something intrinsically wrong with him, since he is poor, that prevents him from learning algebra?  Does that make sense?  Is there really something in his poverty that keeps him from learning?  Of course his poverty affects his schooling, but does it actually define it?  I don't think so.

My son is a doctor at a pediatric emergency room in New Haven, CT.  Most of the children he sees are Black or Hispanic, and many are quite poor.  Does that mean that he can't fix their wounds?  Of course their poverty makes it more likely that they will get sick or injured, but that doesn't mean that we have to wait until they are middle class before we can help them.  Medicine and income are two different problems; you don't have to solve both at the same time.  The same is true of education.  It is quite possible to teach someone like Mitty quite a bit, regardless of his poverty.

And we should teach him.  Whose fault is it that this child is wandering around at 3 am on Christmas eve?  Not, mostly, his.  He didn't create the poverty in his family.  He just has to put up with it.  I know, there is injustice all over the world, but near the top of the list, I would think, is the injustice to children born into problematic families.  What have they done to deserve this?  The least we can do is reach out to them and try to help them as much as we can, and for a teacher, that means teaching them.  There was nothing wrong with Mitty's mind.  He was making quite rational choices given the options he had before him.  That snowy street was probably actually a better place than the angry home he was avoiding.  There is no reason not to try to teach him as best we can.

Peter Dodington

December 24, 2016