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






A Fourfold Increase in Teachers’ Salaries

In Paul Auster's novel Man in the Dark, a civil war has started in America;  New York and most of New England have broken away from the rest of the country and set up their own government.  Among the restrictions in this new nation are, as Auster puts it, "universal health insurance, no more oil, no more cars or planes, a fourfold increase in teachers' salaries (to attract the brightest students to the profession), [and] strict gun control."

Leaving aside just how these other  ideas would work, let's consider the plan to pay teachers four times as much.  Would that work?  Would it attract better teachers to the profession and get them to educate our children better?  Much as I like Mr Auster's work, and am pleased that he wants to improve the schools, I don't think so.  The idea is not only impractical and based on faulty assumptions, but shows us just how far off even quite intelligent and well-meaning people are on this topic.

We already have schools that pay their teacher quite a bit.  When I worked at a suburban school in Westchester County north of New York I was getting about twice as much as I would in the city.  Did that mean that the education was twice as good?  Probably not. The teachers there were good, but by no means especially excellent.  The best teachers I ever encountered, in my 40-some years of teaching, were in the New York City schools. There I met people who had truly devoted their lives to the education of the students.  It only stands to reason that a difficult situation brings out the best in people. It has been shown time and time again that simply paying people more, whether in a helping profession or in any business, does not guarantee that they will succeed.

But what about the idea that this would attract better students to the profession?  Would that work?  We certainly need better students entering the teaching profession.  In some countries the top students become teachers; here in American, it is more like the average students.  Everyone says that one of the best ways to improve the public schools would be to get better teachers into the system.  Wouldn't better pay help that?

Perhaps, but that is not the way the other countries do it.  Those countries that attract the top students don't necessarily pay the highest salaries.  Rather, they just have high admissions standards in their teacher training programs.  They only take the best.  They control the application process very carefully, only allowing top students to even start the process, and so end up with excellent candidates.  It's not a matter of money; it's that the organization in charge has figured out how to make the process work well.

That is why we have this problem of low-level candidates in America.  It's the control of the process that is the problem, not the amount of money involved.  Here we allow the states to control the situation, and they have little interest in making it work well.  How could they?  The candidates don't stay in the states where the training takes place.  They move all over the country.  You don't have to end up teaching in Montana if you get your training there.  Yet it is the state of Montana which is totally in charge of that training. There is no such thing as a national teacher training program.  Or, for that matter, a locally organized one.  It is all done by the states.  And since there is nothing to keep the graduates of these programs in the state that set up the training, there is no incentive for the state to do it well.

The reason these other countries organize their teacher training programs so carefully is that it benefits them.  They can see that they need a good education system if they want their economy to grow and their citizens to be peaceful and united, and that to do that they need good teachers, and that this requires a carefully structured training program. None of this works, though, for our decentralized state-run system.  The states don't benefit from the quality of their teacher training program, since many, if not most, of the graduates will go to other states.  At best, they can just hope to produce average graduates and so not lose more than the other states when they leave.  Hence, average training programs all around.

So money is not the problem; it is not even a factor in the problem.  We have a decentralized system that will never produce good training programs for our teachers no matter what we do.  It's the decentralization itself that locks in the mediocrity.

And notice what has also happened in that passage in the Auster book.  We all claim that America has this decentralized state-run school system and that this can never be changed; it is who we are.  Yet, the minute Auster imagines a break-away group of rebels who want a new and better country, that idea flies out the window.  It's going to be a centralized system from the start.  The break-away states get together and decide among themselves what joint action they should take.  They don't let each state decide for themselves. That wouldn't work.  If you want to improve things for the whole group you have to take some kind of collective action.  This is so obvious that we don't even notice that Auster is changing the rules on us and positing a centralized school system in this new country.  It just seems the logical thing to do.

So that is also part of the problem.  Here is this level-headed intellectual forgetting that we have said that we always want a decentralized system. This is why our school problems are so difficult.   We all act as if, in fact, we had a centralized system, and could change things like the rate of pay for the whole program.  But we can't.  And that is not even the main problem.  The main problem is that if we won't ever admit to ourselves what we have, then there is not much chance of changing it for the better.

Peter Dodington

December 31, 2016