Seems to me the American public schools are saddled with two particularly heavy burdens. One is discussed widely and debated heatedly, the other is like an elephant in the classroom – huge and hungry but rarely acknowledged:
Teaching poor kids is expensive. Their deficits are costly in time and resources.
Teaching wealthy kids is expensive. Their demands are costly in time and resources.
I have taught in both communities. My experiences have taught me that, besides a swath of American families who lightly tax school systems, these two groups are the biggest consumers of public school services. My experiences have also taught me that impoverished schools are largely populated by students of color and wealthy schools serve mostly white kids. Aside from their disparate assignments, teachers in both communities have this in common: both are overwhelmingly white.
The schools in the Dominican Republic were probably the poorest I’ve worked in, outside of the Detroit Public Schools. The first town I worked in had a school whose principal and two of its teachers went missing mid-year. We soon discovered that they had taken the dangerous overnight journey by rickety fishing boat across the Mona Canal to Puerto Rico in an effort to provide better for their families. Dominican students attended class if they could afford the uniform and if they didn’t have to work a day job to help feed their family. Some came totally illiterate, but ready to read; others came eager to read, but with deficits and dysfunctions that would be impossible to overcome without specialized instruction that the school couldn’t afford, let alone find.
My experience teaching in Detroit was similar, in a way. Although Detroit teachers didn’t seek to flee the country, many of us did seek to flee the city schools. Along with other returned Peace Corps volunteers, I entered the Detroit classroom by way of the Peace Corp Teaching Fellowship. Having survived the trials of an impoverished foreign land, we were selected to teach in ‘unfilled’ assignments by day while pursuing our credentials at night. We committed to teach three years in Detroit. Of the dozens of us who began the fellowship, only a handful remained after five years. A decade later, I knew of only two of us left teaching in the Detroit Public Schools. The great majority of us took our credentials and Master’s Degrees and moved to wealthy suburbs, others left education altogether.
Needless to say, both the Dominican and Detroit classrooms tended to be chaotic. Attendance by students and staff was sporadic. Although the students were organized by age group, their reading abilities varied wildly; illiteracy was epidemic. Classroom support and materials were uneven. Teacher salaries and esteem were low. I remember many days driving home feeling like I had failed and that I was part of a larger failure. The newspapers and politicians often helped to reinforce those feelings.
My wife (a fellow Peace Corps Fellow) and I left the Detroit Public Schools after five years to teach internationally. We moved to Colombia and taught at a wealthy private school in the city of Manizales, a college town in the heart of the nation’s coffee production. The school hired half of its staff from Canada and the United States, the other half were local. We foreign teachers received a salary and living allowance that provided a lifestyle far better then we could afford back home in Detroit. All my fourth grade students were bilingual and biliterate, and all could afford after-school tutoring (most took advantage of it). Leaving school each day, we felt like we were part of a success. We were often praised for our successful teaching. Yet, we weren’t as exhausted and worried.
Although we returned to the States and to “at risk” schools, we eventually found ourselves teaching in one of Michigan’s wealthiest zip codes. The pay grade was better, with the promise of maxing out our pensions, and the students walked in the doors fully literate. Many families sought extra-curricular tutoring and opted their children into our district’s Spanish and Mandarin immersion programs, where their home-language fluency would transfer to their second languages (and eventually onto their college applications). Student gains could be expected like a check on payday. And we rode home at night feeling like we were, again, part of a success.
Public schools opponents argue that education can not compete with poverty. They lament the resources that poorer districts devour with very little to show for it. They bicker about the cost of bilingual services (why don’t they learn English like my grandfather did?), and the pricey enrichment programs, free lunches, and remedial services. Most of all, they rally at the price of the teacher. Her greed almost surpasses her laziness, why look at her students! They can barely read!
Yet, we can walk into the zip code next door and that consumer regret is met with great consumer demands. The public school customer in wealthy communities might pepper teachers with emails, expecting a 24 hour (or less) response. State of the art athletic fields, chaperoned field trips abroad, accommodations built upon accommodations, customized parent teacher conferences and unscheduled meetings in aisle nine of the grocery store become expectations, not burdens. And if an expectation isn’t met, the next parent-teacher organization meeting will make a presidential debate look like a walk in the park.
My performance in Detroit and Dominican classrooms generally looks different than my instruction in wealthier schools, even though I generally use the same methods and practices and my instruction has produced measurable student gains in both communities. The half- baked lesson I deliver in Forest Hills might look like I hit it out of the ballpark – winning student gains in spite of me missing the mark, while the lesson I nail in Detroit leaves students engaged and learning, but only baby steps forward on the great spectrum of literacy.
Until we address the reality that affluence enhances instruction and poverty corrodes it, politicians and policy makers are merely practicing voodoo. Pretending instruction in Del Ray is the same as instruction in Grosse Pointe is insanity, and perpetuates the tragic American tradition: a nation of two public schools systems, one highly successful, and mostly caucasian, another an abject misery populated by most students of color.
If we begin by confronting the lie that all our Public Schools play on an even playing field, we take baby steps to a better future for our kids and “their kids”. If our public schools are vibrant enough not to need charter school competition, why should their kids have to navigate a marketplace of speculators? If our child’s teachers find pride and gainful employment in our districts, how can we create the same environment for educators in their districts? If a healthy campus and modern resources are essential to our child’s growth, why should our neighboring district have anything less?
Fund it, tend to it, celebrate it – just like our own child’s district. We don’t question the cost in time and money for our home districts. We have no lack of enthusiasm for our child’s teachers, sports programs, and physical plant. We devote plenty of our time and energies to our school organizations and events. Imagine the gains those same energies and resources would yield if we expended them beyond our own district’s
boundaries. Think of the public schools we could have if we took into account, and responded to, the situations of other people’s children.
Turning what we perceive as a burden inflicted by ‘“them” into an expectation for all our nation’s children could be the best education reform yet.