What a Novel Idea


I know I write a lot about American education. I freely admit it’s one of my pet peeves. It began when I worked at a high school in south Texas, because I was absolutely appalled at the level of education there, the ignorance of most the teachers, the self-serving politics of the administration which hampered the few good teachers in their work, and all the time spent on things other than education.

The reason I still go on about it every now and then is because education is a big issue here. Not the biggest issue on the campaign trail, but indirectly it’s always there. Why are American jobs going overseas? Not just because it’s cheaper in India. People are better educated there. Why are so few kids choosing for a career in science? Because they’ve had no science education to speak of and because so many public school math teachers don’t even have a bachelor’s degree in math. Why does America rate in the high thirties in every international education-rating list? Because overall, public education here is bad. There’s no way around it.

The teachers’ unions will have you believe that America’s lack of education is due to parents not being involved, students being from poor backgrounds, students not speaking English at home, fathers being absent, classroom ceilings having leak stains, teachers not being paid enough, teachers not being appreciated enough–anything but that the teachers aren’t teaching.

Everywhere I go, ever since working at that school, I hear teachers and administrators say they have only the students’ best interests at heart. The more I hear someone say that, the less I believe it. I heard it the most from the superintendent of that little school I worked at, and nothing was further from the truth. That guy did every single thing he did for his own personal gain. He wanted to get his contract renewed, so he did what was popular with the school board.

The school board in that tiny hamlet consisted largely if not entirely of people with no education themselves, whose biggest power in life was being on that board, who sat chewing gum on their little podium during graduation, and who just wanted their kids to get their high school diploma, regardless of whether it stood for anything or not.

Whether the superintendent’s contract got renewed depended on the number of kids that would graduate. So he pressured the teachers to give them all good grades and he got around the standardized testing by sticking students who acted up in special ed, where they would get their diploma even if they didn’t pass the TAAS test.

He scored brownie points by building a football field in a flood zone. He had to have three feet of dirt brought in; imagine how much that alone cost. Not a single decision he made–as far as I could tell, and he bragged about all his ‘accomplishments’ to no end–was aimed at getting those kids a better education.

And that superintendent, in that little corner of the country, is no exception. One man, who came to the Rio Grande Valley on the Teach for America Program, worked in a public school for two years, was disgusted, and started a charter school. For my Dutch readers: a charter school is a public school (free) but with greater freedom to teach in ways they feel is more effective.

He has been extremely successful. He has those charter schools all over the Valley now. They’re called the IDEA Academy. Students from all backgrounds go there–poor, rich, native English speakers, native Spanish speakers, etc., and they do well. They have a much higher graduation rate and more of the students go on to college than from the surrounding public schools.

So now he wants to expand into San Antonio and Austin. I don’t know about San Antonio, but every morning on the local radio I hear the Austin ISD being scared shitless. In the name of having the students’ best interests at heart, they are dragging their feet, saying we should think about this more, that the IDEA Academy should be made to sign a non-compete clause, more studies should be done, etc., before they are allowed to set up a charter school in east Austin, the area which could benefit the most from improved education. One of the arguments is that the IDEA Academy doesn’t actually educate underserved areas. Have they been to the Rio Grande Valley? Have they seen the state of education there?

If the public school education in east Austin is so great, why would Austin ISD be afraid of competition? This is not about the students’ best interests. This is about teachers and principals and the superintendent potentially being shown within a very short period of time that what they haven’t been able to do can be done, just not–obviously–by the teaching establishment or within the present teaching system.

7 responses to “What a Novel Idea

  1. Hmmm, I agree with you that American education overall is failing. There’s no question about that. I also agree that there are a lot of ineffective and incompetent teachers. No doubt about that, either. I also like the idea of charter schools. They’re great for innovation and they’re great as alternatives to failing schools and districts, BUT they’re inadqueate as a large-scale solution. If teachers in the States are not good enough, it’s because they leave the profession in droves.

    You probably know this already, but about half of all teachers leave the profession, not just their job, within five years of starting. It’s not about pay. Most teachers I know are content with their pay. It’s about not wanting to remain in a thoroughly broken system, like your Teach for America friend (I have a lot of those, only a couple of whom decided to stick it out teaching for the long haul). Your friend started a charter school, which is great, but the long-term retention rate for Teach for America teachers is not that great.

    If every public school was replaced with a charter school, you would still draw your teachers from the same talent pool. Pay would remain about the same. Work conditions would not change that much in aggregate because the sum of all education resources would not increase and (again) neither would the talent pool of teachers or administrators. Also, you know Texas. All those sports and distractions would not go away because most Texas communities love them. Priorities would still be skewed there. Also, although charter schools have notched some incredible success, studies have found that on average (looking at thousands of charter schools across the country), they perform about as well as public schools. This is not a silver bullet. Charter schools may accept all students (though many do not accept disabled students–I didn’t say ALL, though), but they also have more leeway in expelling students who are violent or chronically disruptive (I don’t mean just throwing wads of paper). Not all charter schools avail themselves of this leeway, but many do.

    I don’t know what to tell you. This problem is even bigger than just education. I’m afraid its roots are in American society and culture.

    I grew up in Austin and attended Austin public schools. They served me well. Schools in East Austin are certainly in terrible shape. I also student taught in Austin. The average teacher worked hard, cared about the students and had the right priorities. There were bad ones, to be sure, but I encountered far more good teachers than bad. This is all anecdotal, of course, but so is what you’re saying about the Rio Grande. I’ve worked under several superintendents. Not one was as bad as the guy you described, though I know he isn’t the only bad one. I’ve never worked in the Rio Grande Valley. If it’s like other poor, rural parts of the state, it has a lot of trouble finding even average teachers. I’ve seen this first-hand elsewhere in the state.

    Anyway, I agree with much of what you said. I’d like to return to my main point: teaching in the United States is not an attractive job. It’s at the bottom of the list of what most educated people would like to do for a living. Even the best and brightest tend to leave the profession before too long. If all we do is denigrate the profession and label all teachers as “bad,” then we will surely turn away exactly the kinds of people we WANT in the classroom. A lot of teachers are bad. Most are not. That has been my experience, even if hasn’t been yours. I don’t believe that this ALL one thing or ALL another mentality will solve the problem.

    I appreciate the conversation. We need to have it.

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    • Hi atomsofthought. Thanks for your thoughful comment.

      I agree that not all teachers are bad. But the system is messed up to such a degree that even good teachers are thwarted in their efforts. For instance at the school I worked at, good teachers were trying to make students keep to deadlines, giving them bad grades or a zero if they didn’t hand in their work on time. The result: the principal would tell them to let the kids do it at a later date, because zeros or bad grades were unacceptable, because then they wouldn’t graduate and then the superintendent’s contract wouldn’t be renewed, and, by extension, neither would the principal’s. Good teachers leave because of this and other stuff, like not being allowed to teach content. (For you Dutchies: that means that for instance history teachers would be allowed to teach history.) Everything is about the TAAS, or the TASK, or whatever the newest acronym is.

      My suggestion isn’t that all schools should be charter schools. But charter schools have greater freedom to experiment, and therefore they can prove that certain things CAN be done. Then there wouldn’t be any excuse for public schools not to implement their innovations. I know that charter schools can probably expell kids that are a problem. And that does give them an unfair advantage, seen from the public schools’ perspective. However, to deny parents access to better education for their kids if they want it, just because it will negatively affect the public schools’ statistics is also wrong, I think.

      Yes, the overall problem is with American society. For one thing, there’s this myth that this is the greatest country in the world. That implies that all other countries are inferior, and that therefore nothing can be learned from them. So wonderfully qualified people from abroad can’t get a teaching job here. They have to go through what I went through and if they need to make money (my husband fortunately made enough for me to be able to spend my time pulling my hair out at the local university) there are faster, easier and more pleasant ways to get there. As long as America is dependent on its own for teaching, I’m afraid things are only going to go downhill because so many teachers can’t teach, and those students go on to college, where they know nothing to begin with and so much time is spent on catching up. Then they get their bachelor’s degree and go back to school to teach. Charter schools are one way of breaking that downward cycle, a little spark of hope as far as I’m concerned.

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  2. We definitely agree on the state of American education. I definitely disagree with this statement: “As long as America is dependent on its own for teaching, I’m afraid things are only going to go downhill.” You may disagree, but there are a lot of talented people in America (by that I don’t mean that America is superior to other countries, just that it does have some talent that happens to favor lucrative career paths in business and industry). They just don’t go into education or, if they do, they don’t stay there (I hope I fall in the latter category). How long do foreign teachers stick with teaching in America? I’ve known a few, and all of them quit after a few years, for the same reasons as their American counterparts. Can you see how the issue is actually keeping good teachers wherever they come from?

    I agree with you entirely about charter schools. I just believe that as long as education can’t attract and retain talent, nothing will change. Charter schools can help solve a lot of problems, but they can’t solve that one (retention rates at charter schools are worse than they are for public schools).

    I’m embarrassed by my country’s failure to educate its kids. It actually does a decent job with certain populations (the better their socioeconomic status, the better the education they receive), but it fails average students and especially poor students. That’s inexcusable. You and I are of like minds. The difference is that I’m probably angrier about the whole situation than you are. We’re talking about the country in which I grew up and in which I expect to live the rest of my life. We’re even talking about my home town. I know where Austin schools fail their students. They didn’t fail me, but I belonged to a fortunate demographic with a lot of advantages. I passed through the most rigorous education track American schools offer, where tough teachers hold their students to tough standards. Not all students are so lucky. The side town in which you live determines a lot, but even within a single high school you may receive an education that is nothing like that of your most fortunate peers in the same school.

    Sorry to make this so long. These issues are complex, as you know. There are reasons in addition to failing K-12 schools for the glut of unprepared college students. The U.S. doesn’t offer the kinds of differentiated secondary routes the Netherlands offers, so students of all abilities and all aspirations are placed in the same schools, and we act as if all of them should attend a four-year university. So you end up with masses of students seeking four-year degrees when they would be better off with some sort of technical training that will make them employable. I like how the Netherlands does it. A friend of mine lived in Germany for about a decade, and he speaks highly of how they track students there. Unfortunately, the whole idea of separating students based on ability and career aspirations is anathema to most Americans.

    Couldn’t agree more with you about the testing craze. Couldn’t agree more about the stupid predominance of sports in Texas schools. It really is worse there than in most states–you’ll have to trust me. I’ve lived in Texas, Massachussetts [which if it were a country would rank in the top fifteen on international measures of student performance–not great, but not bad, either], Wisconsin, Michigan and California. Education varies wildly from one state to another.

    Sorry to ramble, but this is important to me. I don’t think my country is superior at all. The whole idea of elevating ourselves above the rest of the world strikes me as idiotic and delusional. But I want to believe that you can see that there are good teachers, and that there are even more potentially good teachers who want nothing to do with education because they see it as toxic and hold it in contempt, like most of society. I also beg you to at least consider that someone who agrees with your general assessment of the state of American education, who is probably more disgusted with it than you and who is an American who has broad experience with it at all levels might understand the truly staggering complexity of the problem in unique ways, just as your foreign perspective gives you unique insights.

    Education in America is seen as charity work. Do it for a while and then get out. That’s our problem.

    Again, thank you for your thoughts. They’re important. We want the same things.

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    • Haha,

      I think we were writing more or less the same thing about tiered education at the same time. See my comment on your post on education 🙂
      I know it’s complex. I also know that not one thing will make the difference. Which is so infuriating, especially since the education establishment doesn’t seem willing to change more than one thing at a time, if even that.

      And not to compete in who’s the more disgusted and furious about American education, but I’m not just an outsider looking in and laughing my head off. First of all the American education system destroyed my school library career by not recognizing my Dutch degree. Second, I worked in one of the poorest, smallest school districts in the Rio Grande Valley as a school librarian because I was the only applicant. I loved the kids, I loved that I felt I could really make a difference because I had the experience and the skills to give them a killer library program. Until I ran up against the system, and the principal, and the superintendent. They wanted to get rid of me because the superintendent had promised the school board that all non-teaching staff would be hired from the teensy-weensy pool of local people with a high school degree. So they lowered my pay to $13,000. And still I drove 45 minutes there and back because I wanted to be there, not realizing what they were trying to do, since I knew nothing about school politics yet. Not to brag, but to be a school librarian in the Valley you had to be a teacher and do a crash course in learning resources over a few Saturdays. So I was probably one of the most qualified school librarians around, and this dirt poor school district had the good luck to get me. And they couldn’t wait to get rid of me. It’s sixteen years ago and it still gets my blood pressure up.

      And now I have kids of my own. I’ve accepted the fact that I’m here to stay. We are extremely lucky that we can afford (so far) to have them in an amazing little private school. But it costs as much as our pretty high mortgage to have them there. And believe it or not, I get pretty furious when I think of all the wonderful kids just like ours, with their dreams and ambitions, who don’t get to realize them because their parents can’t afford a good education. And so they stay poor, and I see the results of that every day on the street corners, holding up signs saying “Hungry, please help.” All I can do is give them a dollar and point out these injustices to my kids, so they can try to somehow change things when their time comes.

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  3. Ahh, clarification: I said early in my comment that “I hope I fall in the latter category,” meaning that I hope I’m a good teacher who left and not a bad one. Either way, I left.

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  4. Hi Barbara (that’s my mother’s name, too),

    I’ve taken up way too much space on your blog already, but I wanted to continue my apology. I made dumb assumptions about you. You obviously have at least at much at stake here as I do, and I can’t even begin to imagine going through what you did in the Rio Grande Valley. I’m sorry, and you’re obviously more than justified in being furious and insulted AND hurt. That’s all I can say. For me, no more comments from me! I learned a lot in this conversation. Thank you. I wish you and your family the best. (And I have to add that I REALLY miss Austin.)

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    • I enjoyed your comments. There’s no such thing as taking up too much space. I would hope this isn’t the last of your comments. I didn’t mean to insult you. As you said, we want the same things and it’s good to have the discussion about what changes would be required. It can be frustrating, infuriating, and we might piss each other off unintentionally, but to me education is the number one issue/problem in this country, and it affects everyone in different ways, so I can’t help writing about it. (And yes, Austin is awesome. I’m so happy to be here!)

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