Sunday, September 16, 2007

What Education Really Needs: Money

Back in the 1980s, during my first stint as a teacher, I remember watching a movie with Nick Nolte and Judd Hirsch called “Teachers.” It wasn’t critically acclaimed, but I enjoyed the movie as I could relate to some of the characters, at least a little.

Most of the characters were caricatures. There was a teacher they simply called Ditto, because he continually hogged the copy machine. There was the obligatory jelly-spined whiner that couldn’t control his class. And there was the physical education coach whose hobby was getting students pregnant.

The movie was recently released on DVD so I felt compelled to watch it again. Although the movie reflected only a superficial resemblance to school life back in the ‘80s, I was struck by how much teaching has changed over the last two decades.

Back then, I could see how it might happen, despite the movie’s hyperbole. Today, it could easily be a satire.

My second career as a teacher began about four years ago. The students are different, because the environment is different. Instead of teaching average suburban kids in high school, I’m now teaching inner-city eighth graders. But I’ve taught eighth graders before, and there isn’t that much difference.

In the movie, the school is being sued by the parents of a student who graduated without the ability to read or write. He couldn’t even fill out a job application. The mentality of the administration, from the superintendent down to the assistant principal, was that the job of the school was to get as many kids through the system as possible, as quickly as possible, knowing full well that a good number of them would slip through the cracks.

The main goal of the administration was to appease the parents and keep any bad news out of the media. So instead of firing and prosecuting the perverted gym coach, they simply transferred him to a different school.

In the move, the education of the student body, if it occurred at all, was just a positive side effect of self-preservation.

Of course, today, schools and administrators are forced by the No Child Left behind Act into an opposite situation that may be just as detrimental to education. Theoretically, the kids come first with every decision made.

The unfortunate side effect of this policy, however, is that the vast majority of students who are most likely to benefit from a good education are being cheated by a mandatory focus on the underachievers and the incorrigible.

Schools are obliged by law to improve their students test scores and other indicators every year. It’s called Average Yearly Progress, or AYP. If a school fails at this for more than four years straight, the state can come in and take over the school. Schools try to avoid this as it could lead to a lot of jobs being lost.

But it is nearly impossible for some schools and school districts to meet AYP because there is no money to hire enough teachers, to fund needed programs, or to even buy enough basic supplies that teachers need, such as paper. Ditto, from the movie, couldn’t survive in today’s climate.

So, on the one hand, teachers are told they have to find ways to increase test scores and attendance. On the other hand, when a science class has 44 students on the roster in a classroom that was meant to hold 24, the learning environment becomes problematic at best.

If education really is a priority, as it should be, then the state and federal governments must make funding them a priority as well. Whatever it takes, more teachers must be hired to avoid the huge class sizes, science labs must be appropriately equipped, and the blame for poor test scores must be removed from the teachers, who are doing the best job they can under the circumstances, and placed where it belongs. The real blame is a severe lack of funding.

Some say throwing money at the problem won’t make it go away. But if the money is used for the right stuff, I disagree with that assertion. Money, and lots of money, can make the biggest difference in the world. Just look at the success of schools that have it.

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