When life imitates an apocryphal exclamation…

“Let them eat cake!”

No evidence exists that Marie-Antoinette actually uttered this infamous phrase upon being informed that the peasants had no bread to eat. Even the translation from the French is less than precise, since “…qu’ils mangent de la brioche!” is more accurately rendered by the phrase “Let them eat rolls!”

Still, this anecdote, historically precise or not, has survived for two centuries because it illustrates so cogently the bitterness that arises from an acute division of social classes. It is chillingly representative of the resentment engendered by the insolence of office vis-à-vis the masses. Ultimately, the French aristocracy in the 18th century paid with their lives for ignoring the needs of the many.

Nearly two centuries later a more enlightened John F. Kennedy would say, “A society that does not help the many who are poor will never save the few who are rich.” Unfortunately, our political practices have yet to reach the lofty aeries of our rhetoric.

The youth of today crossed the threshold into a new millennium of immense promise and potential, but the door may soon slam shut on any save the most privileged. The war on our public schools is well-funded and widespread. Generally, and for no good reason, we are failing abysmally to meet the needs of America’s poorest youth.

This society in general, and this community in particular, still decline to commit the necessary resources to the education of all our children. Constituents are screaming for reduced class size and the consequent personalized attention from teachers that their children need and deserve. Instead, staffing ratios in Prince George’s County have fallen in the last decade from 54 teachers per 1,000 students, which was already inadequate, to 46 teachers per 1,000 students which renders nearly impossible the job assigned to teachers and administrators .

This actually sounds like 22 students a class until you do a little number crunching. At any given time, one-quarter to one-fifth of staff members are free of children during their planning period. Further complicate matters with some “non-teaching” or “non-classroom based” positions and pretty soon we’re talking more than thirty students per class and a near inhumane load of clientele for the typical classroom teacher. Nor is eliminating those “non-classroom based” positions the solution, because the work they do helps the school run more efficiently.

What is really accomplished when a perennially overworked staff receives an improvement in compensation only to discover longer class lists at the start of the school year? One colleague even joked that they could have the raise back for smaller classes, but most are just doing what they’ve always done. They are trying to do their best in difficult circumstances.

Another budget cycle looms large and there are no guarantees -as always- that the community will support the Board of Education’s budget request.

In the last three decades, the budget request was fully-funded just once on a fairly low ball request…

Must this continue ad infinitum?

A certain political party encourages us only to consider our narrow self-interest instead of the common welfare of our citizenry.   We are urged to vote for candidates who support vouchers, tax-credits, charters, school choice and home schooling. They would have us believe every family is an island, whole and entire unto itself; and that, as participants in society, we are not diminished, all, by the failure of any child. John Donne must surely be turning in his grave at the hardening of our collective heart.

For that same political party, the one where fewer than 1,000 members contribute in excess of 133 million dollars to the party coffers, the goal, it would appear, is to pit the have-littles against the have-nots in a strategy of divide and conquer. It is most frightening that the strategy may be paying dividends.

Home teaching? Beyond the fundamentals, how many among us can presume to have the qualifications to teach math through infinitesimal calculus, science through physics, a foreign language to fluency, information systems, literature, music and physical education? Keep it as an option for those so inclined, but for those who are unable to execute an instructional plan, writing off the potential of their children is not an option.

School choice? The only reasonable choice is for every child to attend a school that has sufficient staffing and resources to do the job. Anything less constitutes dereliction of our duty to the next generation.

Charters? Well-regulated charters that offer well-defined programs that differ significantly from the traditional schools offer beneficial alternatives. However, the headlines have been weighed down with stories of financial irregularities, profit skimming and refusals to accommodate students that present challenges.

Vouchers? In Florida, potential “voucher” students were reportedly turned away from 9 out of 10 private schools when they applied due to insufficient seats. Private schools do not have the capacity to take up the slack of students who might want access. Anyway, how is removing money from the public coffers the solution for schools that are already drastically under funded?

Be wary, very wary, as you cast your vote! Every election continues to be the most important election in history. For when the masses cry out that their children are floundering in the Public Schools and that there is insufficient educational “bread” to go around, the message that some are hearing is:

Let them attend private school.

The Juggler’s Lament

Once upon a time in the faraway land of Lancelot, there lived a citizenry who, for reasons we may never fully understand, regarded juggling to be among the highest forms of human self-expression.

Conversations around the dinner table were replete with references to the latest feats of renowned jugglers. Some might savor the behind-the-back passes of Jake the Juggler, while others preferred the under-the-leg toss of Jane the Juggler. Old timers might reminisce about the exploits of the great Jim the Juggler who once kept the prodigious quantity of twenty-balls aloft for seven minutes, or even Jocelyn the Juggler who had once juggled eleven hours without a drop.

Juggling was a difficult profession requiring endless practice and selfless devotion to keep the audiences entertained, but many were the parents who pushed their children toward juggling for the simple privilege of one day being able to say, “My child is in the Juggler’s Guild.”

It was a simple and happy time.

So revered were jugglers that the citizens of Lancelot petitioned to have jugglers be regarded as public servants with a salary and a pension.

This is when politicians and bureaucrats became involved. They resolved to get the public its money’s worth. The legislature named a Director of Juggler Assessment and Certification who had lasted less than a year in the trade.

And so it came to pass that people who had never kept so much as two balls aloft at one time were charged with the licensing and certification of jugglers. First, these public servants designed a test. The testers would launch the contents of six buckets filled with three-dozen balls to prospective jugglers standing in rooms with very low ceilings. In each bucket the balls varied dramatically in dimension and weight.

Some were hollow; some were filled with sand; still others were filled with lead. The jugglers were expected to keep all the balls flying through the air in nearly identical arcs.

Some of the balls were quite fragile. The juggler was expected to spot those balls first and keep them from breaking.

Some of the balls had barbs and hooks that could prick painfully. The juggler was expected to manipulate them without injury.

It did not matter that no juggler, past or present, had ever successfully kept so many objects in the air.

Points were mercilessly subtracted for every ball and drop of blood that hit the floor.

It was suddenly very difficult to become a juggler.

Next came the inevitable reports decrying the incompetency of the nation’s jugglers. The president of Lancelot held a seminar to study the juggling crisis. Not one juggler was invited to participate.

When the Juggler’s Guild came forward to suggest that perhaps they were best qualified to establish parameters for accepted practice and entry into their organization, they were told that the task was far too important to be left to a bunch of jugglers.

The Bureau of Licensing and Certification designed a special velcro suit with webbing under the arms and between the fingers that all jugglers were required to wear. Fewer balls hit the ground now, but it did not make for very compelling juggling as most of the time jugglers were forced to chase the better part of three-dozen balls that were rolling around on the floor.

Jugglers had been reduced to a sorrowful state of affairs. It was not long before the crowds dwindled. Those that remained either heckled or mercilessly mocked the jugglers. Taxpayers even began to begrudge jugglers the pittance they earned in salary and pension.

Not long after that, it became difficult to find anyone who wanted the job of juggler, and very rightfully so.

Thank goodness times have changed. Thank goodness our nation is not engaged in the torture and torment of simple entertainers. Thank goodness we no longer perpetrate such crimes on our jugglers.

No, that has become the fate of our teachers…

The statistical problems with sample size

Imagine for a moment that some agency, in an attempt to establish the average Body Mass Index for Americans, used players in the NFL as the original “sample”. After carefully establishing the range and the mean for BMI in the entire league, would it be reasonable to look at the rest of the American population and declare that the human species was shrinking

The absurdity of the proposal is staggering.

However, just such a scenario has been played out for years with the Scholastic Achievement Test when newspapers decry our nation’s “plummeting” SAT scores.

The validity of this standardized test for anything other than determining the socio-economic status of those sitting for the exam might be the topic of a future article. Cost is listed as one of the major impediments to sitting for the exam.

Today, however, alarmist headlines are inexcusable when, for decades, the SAT was normed against and administered to America’s academic elite, the upper quartile of high school students.

We are moving, albeit at a glacially slow pace, toward a society that discourages the concept of disposable children. As we come closer to furnishing all children the opportunity to compete against their peers, we are inexorably increasing the sample size.

Statisticians will confirm that the “average” score will invariably fall as the sample size increases. Except in the case of a totally randomized sample, it is foolish to expect otherwise. The SAT has yet to be normed on a random sample across the spectrum of all American students.

Yet, such realities do not hinder ideologues from using such erroneous data analysis as political fodder to question the effectiveness of our public schools.

Diane Ravitch clearly illustrates in Reign of Error how student achievement and academic performance have been steadily improving for decades according to a host of of alternative measures. More students know more about more subjects, and at earlier ages, than ever before in our history.

Moving forward will require that irrelevant soundbites and erroneous headlines not drive the debate around educational egalitarianism.


[This Commentary appeared originally in the now defunct Prince George’s Gazette on 10/23/2014.] 

School investment must keep pace with education needs

Overland transportation needs were satisfied for centuries by horse-drawn vehicles. Dirt roads were entirely adequate thoroughfares when dealing with such limited speed. The invention of the automobile, however, changed things. With increased speed arrives the need for smoother, more durable surfaces. Societies have responded by dedicating resources to construct a network of paved roads, highways and interstates on which commerce and tourism flourish. Public monies were invested wisely in a transportation infrastructure to enhance the common good. The dividends of this investment have been distributed as broad access to goods and services on a scale that would have defied the imagination of our ancestors.

So, in this the age of the information superhighway, why do our schools still operate on a model that basically predates paved roads? For all those concerned about the intellectual development of children, this situation should be alarming.

Unfortunately, our system of delivering was never designed to furnish optimal results for all children. At the beginning of the industrial age, a 25 percent dropout rate was the norm and only elite students continued studies after high school. A century ago, marginal literacy and numeracy were the largely achievable goals of public education for citizens. However, the number of skills and the amount of knowledge needed to compete in today’s world is expanding at an exponential rate as the compendium of human knowledge continues to double every seven years

Moreover, in recent years, we have elevated the expectation of optimal academic results to include every child with no significant changes in the school day, the school year or the scholastic career.

Our protocols for delivering instruction are dated and in need of modernization. Our calendar is agrarian, and our school day is modeled after a post-industrial-age assembly line that offers little in the way of meeting the needs of every individual learner, unless, of course, the teacher devotes every waking hour to planning instruction and furnishing meaningful feedback on student work. It must be duly noted that any relationship between Management and Labor that remains totally dependent upon the altruism of the work force will fail, in the long run, to meet its objectives.

Ironically, even the captains of the auto industry learned that empowering workers to control the speed of the assembly line reduced mistakes and improved the product, however, the assembly line for teachers continues to accelerate. The typical highly effective teacher dedicates nearly 60 hours weekly to improving the lives of children. Far too much of that workweek is spent on tasks that have little to do with what should be a teacher’s primary function: the preparation and organization of effective instruction.

School funding as a percentage of the gross national product has remained virtually unchanged in this nation since World War II, hovering around 6.3 percent of Gross National Product, and our own per-pupil spending remains a fraction of those jurisdictions with whom we compete for highly qualified instructors. Prince George’s County’s contribution to the school budget has dropped to 39% percent of the Board of Education budget from 49 percent a couple decades ago. Disparities in funding between affluent and economically challenged communities perpetuate both the divide in academic performance and the stratification of our society. While we have attempted to maintain competitive salaries in Prince George’s County, we have done so at the expense of a reasonable staffing ratio.

Our community can and must improve its support for the public schools. We must invest in our schools with the same goal fulfilled by our investment in highways: to meet the needs of the times. We simply must smooth the way for all children as active participants in the age of information. The yields will be immeasurable, but real. The only real question is whether we are ready to make the investment of paving over the cart path that leads to social justice for children.

Further Reading @ The Prince George’s Sentinel

[This Commentary first appeared in the Prince George’s Gazette on January 12, 2012]



What will be the Prince George’s County legacy to public education?

“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”
Thomas Jefferson to Charles Yancey, 1816

A couple centuries ago, this nation’s independence was predicated on the rebellious notion of “No Taxation without Representation”. The fundamental belief in the consent of the governed inspired the original “Tea Party” and, as a result, we live today in a successful, if deeply divided, representative democracy.

In recent years, however, elements of the extreme right have conspired to truncate that original revolutionary catch phrase to a simple “No Taxation.” Search all you want, but nothing in the Constitution guarantees that the right to amass wealth shall supersede all other rights or that the right to profit shall never be infringed.

Still, one conservative ideologue advocates for a government that can be drowned in a bathtub, while still another seeks to bestow “personhood” on corporations while advocating for the reversal of the hard-won rights of organized labor. It is one thing to discuss reasonable constraints on the intrusion of government on private lives and quite another to suggest government is incapable of providing for the common good.

We yield to such demagoguery at our own peril.

Our elected leaders are charged with a half-dozen tasks in the preamble of our Constitution. A Social Contract is in peril when one party to the contract declines all reasonable compromise and proves itself unwilling to enter into the debate with anyone perceived as opposition.

Our union will be more perfect when all citizens are better informed.  We will establish justice when every child is able to access a high-quality education. We will ensure domestic tranquility when the fruits of skills and knowledge replace the catch-as-catch-can of the ill-prepared. How can we ever hope to promote the general welfare without leveling the playing field at the schoolhouse?

Such accomplishments depend on communal goodwill and sacrifice. They are common interests and all of them have associated costs. One would be hard-pressed to name a more important endeavor for the maturation of our democracy than the maintenance of a firm commitment to Public Education.

Our priorities at all levels of government – federal, state and local – must endure harsher scrutiny. Do we want government that serves corporate interests or one that serves the people? Our founding documents are pretty clear on that issue as well.

This nation spends more on the “common defense” than the next six industrialized nations combined, while too many American children sit in overcrowded classrooms studying outdated materials in dilapidated physical plants. We purchase more than enough arms to deal with our external threats, but how will we secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity if we permit ourselves to decay from within?



[A shorter version of this Commentary first appeared in the Prince George’s Gazette on June 14, 2012.]


Giving Children the Gift of Education Equity

The season of hope, good will and charity is upon us once more. What better time to ask ourselves the important question about what we owe to our fellow travelers in this great human adventure? Our society remains deeply, perhaps hopelessly, divided on the issue.

Back in May 2014, in a quote worthy of Ebenezer Scrooge, a commentator on Fox News, Todd Willemon, offered his take on the discussion during an interview on the “The Daily Show”. What insights did he offer on the 40 million Americans in need of health care insurance? “If you are poor, stop being poor!”

Willemon offers, in earnest, a counterpoint to what Representative Alan Grayson (D – FL) had previously offered, in jest, about conservative plans for health care, when he said, “Don’t get sick; if you get sick, die quickly.”

How is it that the affluent harbor such contempt for the impoverished? Tens of millions of the working poor toil at multiple jobs for subsistence pay. What person would choose such a life if any alternative were available?

Families do not choose endless labor for inadequate wages and benefits; that reality is inflicted upon them by an investor class that values personal profit over the welfare of employees.

Sixteen million children – more than one-in-five, nationally – did not choose to be born to poverty; intergenerational poverty has been the status quo in this nation for centuries.

More than half a century ago, Bishop Fulton Sheen bemoaned our national obsession with the unbridled acquisition of what he called “superfluous wealth”, or wealth that serves no purpose but the generation of ever more wealth.

Sixty years later, the richest nation on Earth provides the fewest supports to the children in most need. We pay lip-service to the idea that “children are our future”; however, our schools are inexorably drifting back to the status of “separate and unequal” effectively removing the most stable ladder to escape the hole of poverty.

So, in this season of charity can we agree, please, that achieving equity in the schoolhouse is not just for your child, but a moral imperative for all children, right here, right now?


[Originally appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Gazette on 12/18/2014.]



Education lessons from merry olde England

Tis the season we explore the redemptive powers of charity, generosity and empathy. In the coming weeks, millions of households will stuff their bellies full and head for warm family rooms to watch their favorite version of that most frequently adapted classic by Charles Dickens: “A Christmas Carol”.

Granted, this nation has progressed far since that little tome was printed, at Dickens’ own expense, and distributed across England at a meager five shillings per copy. Today, only one in five children suffer the ravages of homelessness, food insecurity and wretched poverty. That is down from the seven-in-ten figure that inspired the creation of everyone’s favorite miserly curmudgeon, Ebenezer Scrooge.

Collectively, we treat children less like chattel, now. Children are less frequently considered a cheap and expendable labor force in modern times. Fewer children are maimed in factories than in the past. We have passed child labor laws and, for the most part, no longer treat children as part of “the surplus population” that Dickensian England was, by all accounts, attempting to reduce by attrition.

This society has become more adept, at least provisionally, at ensuring the common necessaries are available to most of our citizens. Most children do not experience abject need for food and shelter. Compulsory attendance  at school is an invention of the 20th century. For too many children, still, that school lunch may be the best meal of the day. 

Still, it is alarming than any children at all are forced to endure societal indifference to their situation.

Outperforming 19th century England constitutes damning by faint praise.

Dickens used his personal wealth to fund schools and improve access to education for underprivileged children. He saw education as an exit strategy from the servitude of the workhouse. When it comes to our budget priorities this year, we would all be well served to heed the warning of the second Spirit, “This boy is Ignorance and this girl is Want. Beware them both…but, most of all, beware this boy for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.”

[First appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Gazette, 12/12/2013]

Equal Opportunity: A Grim Fairytale of Two Cities

Once upon a time in a land far away, a snafu of biblical proportions separated a set of identical twins in the regional hospital and sent them home with two sets of parents.  Both sets of unsuspecting parents would love their children unabashedly and without reservation. Both families were determined to do the best possible job raising their little bundles of joy.

The two lads possessed nearly identical aptitudes: prodigious intelligence and incredible potential at birth.  The first, Monty,  would live in the lap of luxury; the second, George, would know only hardships.  Monty, whose father was a highly successful investment banker, would know only privilege; George, whose father repaired small engines for a living, would discover life’s obstacles.  Monty’s parents had means; George’s parents belonged to that class of people called the working poor. They were good, honest, hard-working people, all, but at opposite ends of the economic ladder.

Monty went to live in a single family home in the suburbs with a crime rate next to zero; George went to the complexes.

Monty was doted upon by his mother and his nanny who encouraged every flight of fancy.  George watched hours of soap operas with the unlicensed daycare provider while his mother worked to make ends meet.

At age three, Monty started studying violin according to the Suzuki method with a replica of a Stradivarius; George listened to the radio, expressed an interest in music, but there was no room for an instrument and lessons in the household budget.

Monty was indulged with a computer, books and a plethora of educational toys; George’s parents managed to meet his basic human needs of food, shelter and clothing.

Little Monty’s stay-at-home mom read to him every night until he went to sleep; George’s mom would fall asleep by the second page weary from her constant labor.

Monty learned to read in a posh pre-school program while George waited still another year for a chance at kindergarten.

Monty and his father camped, hiked and sailed together on the weekend; George’s father worked a second job at the local gas station.

Monty eventually attended an elementary school with class sizes between fifteen and twenty-one; George’s classes were sometimes double that.  Monty’s teachers were highly-qualified and adequately compensated; George’s teachers were underpaid and inexperienced because a voter imposed tax-cap hindered appropriate funding of the schools.  Monty walked to the local school a few hundred yards from his home; George rode a bus for an hour to avoid the largely unsuccessful local school.

Every time Monty sneezed, he was off to see the doctor.  George’s parents had no healthcare coverage, so visits to the doctor were prohibitively expensive.   Monty seldom missed school; George was absent more.

The multi-purpose room at Monty’s school could not hold all the parents on Back-to-School night; the one at George’s school was sparsely populated because most parents were still at work.   The PTA at Monty’s school held fundraisers for all the little extras; George’s school suffered shortages of even the most basic supplies.

The parents in Monty’s school district financed political campaigns; the parents in George’s school district wrote letters.  Monty’s school district got fifty new certified teachers (among the the finest transferred from George’s school district!); George’s school district got bupkus.

When Monty started having difficulties with math and science, his parents hired a tutor.  When George had these problems, his parents would do their level best to help him with his homework.

Monty had access to a well-stocked school library; George’s school system had to spend that money on gasoline for the school buses.

It was discovered that Monty and George had IQ’s in the genius range.  Monty went off to private school to make acquaintances among the “elite” and to form lifelong friendships and connections.  George was placed in a still over-crowded “Talented And Gifted” class where perhaps a third of the students were misplaced.

By a bizarre quirk of fate, both Monty and George lost their fathers to heart attacks at the tender age of fifteen.  Monty and his mom received a huge trust and the proceeds of a sizable insurance policy.  George and his mom received, shall we say, a somewhat lesser check from Social Security.   

A year later their mothers were both rendered invalids by a stress related stroke.  Monty and George and their two siblings were sent to live with relatives.

Here we part ways with our young heroes and leave them to their devices.

Now, reader, which one, George or Monty, was more likely to get into a good college and excel there?

Some will argue that there are people like Monty who fail, and that, conversely, there are people like George who succeed beyond all expectations.  That is undoubtedly true.  However, this truth is best described as anecdotal.  It is called a statistical anomaly.  From time to time, an individual will surprise us with the unexpected for both good and ill.

What happens if we compare the statistics on 60,000 people like Monty and another 60,000 like George?  Which group do you think would have the higher SAT average?   Which group would put the most students in post-secondary education scenarios?  Which group would generate the most dropouts?  Which group would put the highest number in a correctional facility?  This is not rocket science.

There are those among us who decry educational spending as a sinkhole.  Some will say: “Throwing money at the problem will not resolve our educational woes!”  Some will tell us that family values, not money, will save our children.  Nonetheless, throwing money most assuredly seems to work, more often than not, for those who have the disposable income to dedicate to their children’s education.  Money is a medium of exchange; it supplies people with opportunities that those without it will never know.

Will more money resolve every difficulty in our public schools?  It certainly will not.

But a sane, rational and egalitarian society must use every means at its disposal to prepare all children to compete in an ever more complex and demanding world, even (especially?) the children of the poor. A life among the socio-economically disadvantaged presents fewer opportunities.  If the playing field of life is ever to be leveled, it may even be necessary to allocate more dollars, not fewer, in schools where poverty is prevalent. In the end this is a self-serving act, because we do not know what someone like George may contribute if furnished with circumstances favorable to personal growth.  The child you act now to save may one day save you.

In Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life”, George Bailey tells Mr. Potter that the poor do most of the working, and living, and dying in Bedford Falls, and that it should not be too much for them to expect a couple decent rooms and running water.  Permit me to suggest that the amenity of a great school be added to that list, one staffed by competent and committed professionals armed with adequate resources. Ultimately, this society will be judged on how it responds to this challenge. Will we tighten our belts and make the necessary sacrifices for the good of all our children, or will the rich continue to get richer, and the poor…

Well, you know the rest.  But, please, do not try to claim that money, or the lack thereof, is irrelevant to educational opportunity and/or performance.

[This is a slightly re-worked update from a commentary in 2000 originally published in the now defunct Prince George’s Journal.] 

Letters from the front

Dear Parents,

On the grandest of scales, everything I ever needed to know about Public Education, I learned watching a situation comedy that frequently explored the angst of our human condition.

“M*A*S*H” introduced me to the concept of triage in a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. Derived from the French verb trier (to sort), triage is a medical protocol designed to cope with the prospect of too few doctors caring for too many casualties on the battlefield. Different from what we currently experience as triage in a modern Emergency Room, trained army medics make life-or-death decisions about which patients might be saved with the resources at hand. Occasionally, the most severely injured are left to die if the heroic measures required to save them might ultimately cost more lives among the less-seriously-injured casualties forced to wait too long for their care. Multiple acute arterial bleeds from numerous shrapnel wounds to internal organs? Sorry, soldier…even attempting to save you will cost the lives of these three less-severe trauma cases over here.

Welcome to life reduced to the existential absurdity of intolerable working conditions adversely affecting the desirable outcome of a maximal effort to save every wounded soldier. Imagine yourself simply administering analgesics and condemning one broken body to death in order to facilitate saving others. How can medical professionals function under such conditions and maintain their sanity? Regrettably, however, this heart-wrenching process has become a metaphor for the modern system of public education.

Today, if teachers are to survive a career in the classroom they must become adept at Educational Triage. Never furnished adequate resources, time or circumstances to reach every student, teachers must all too often cut their losses by occasionally giving up, albeit reluctantly, on students who do not exhibit sufficient resilience to thrive in the classroom. Not enough of a self-starter to crack your book and get your assignments done? Sorry, student, the hours spent arriving at minimal participation will negatively impact the many classmates ready and willing to perform.

Much like the doctor in a battlefield hospital, teachers confront a long roster of  students that is, at best, daunting. Not only is the caseload overwhelming, but far too many of the students on their rolls present perhaps insurmountable challenges. Hence, teachers are frequently forced to choose the interests of the many over the interest of the one. These decisions are not the result of malice, sloth or incompetence. They derive from judicial duress. In the state of Maryland, a judge ruled -and was upheld- that class size “is not a working condition” and therefore “non-negotiable” in the collective bargaining process. Specious legal reasoning may stand up as a narrow interpretation of the law, but it certainly withers under the scrutiny of reason and experience for classroom practitioners.

But surely,” you might exclaim, “our children are far better off than someone lying wounded in a field hospital!”

Truthfully, too many of our children can be tallied among the walking wounded, because the community to which they belong does not currently exhibit the will to lift them from their circumstance and prepare them adequately for the information age.

Neither the county nor the state has demonstrated sufficient resolve to furnish the resources that might transform schools into the one safe place where at-risk children can feel connected in this age of rampant alienation and dissociation. Children are the disenfranchised victims of societal indifference to their plight.

Were your child in legal trouble, would you hire a law clerk who had yet to pass the bar exam? Were your child ill, would you even consider a visit to an unlicensed practitioner? No, you would be looking for the most qualified professional you could find. How has it become acceptable anywhere in America that children can spend more than 1,100 hours each year with inexperienced or marginally-qualified educators?

The demographics suggest that it has become tolerable because it is most consistently the problem of poor children of color and poor children of recent immigrants. We see schools with 100 percent participation in the free/reduced lunch program; coincidentally, those schools also have higher percentages of inexperienced educators. For some reason we have not sufficiently pressured our political leaders to institute the changes necessary to achieve real equity in those schools.

Like it or not, the issue is funding. Affluent jurisdictions almost always manage to fund their schools; they grease the political wheels; they buy influence. Jurisdictions with soci0-economic challenges are seldom able to accomplish that feat.

If a community aspires to no more than the educational equivalent of meatball surgery, then our mission has been nearly accomplished. However, if teachers are to do more than sort those who choose to learn from those who appear unwilling, then we must find an effective and equitable manner by which to fund completely our most challenged schools.

Perhaps you’ve heard the old inspirational saw often trotted out to encourage educators. Two children are walking on the beach. They find hundreds of starfish washed up on the shore. The first child throws one back in the ocean. His companion wonders what possible difference saving one starfish could make. The erstwhile triage specialist responds, “It made a difference to that one.”

A poignant parable… unless your child is among those left as detritus on the beach.


A beleaguered teacher


[Updated from an early Commentary 5/6/99 in the now defunct Prince George’s Journal. Despite enacting the Bridge to Excellence Act in Maryland inspired by the Thornton Commission’s findings, staffing ratios remain approximately 20% lower than our neighbors.]

Hopelessness Makes Political Refugees of Educators

A colleague once shared that she was about to leave the teaching profession.  She was a mid-career teacher who just could not take it any longer.  Too much work-centered heartache had taken its toll.  At the point in her career where she should have been hitting her stride as a teacher, she said, “This teaching gig is for the birds.”

“Teaching is not for the birds,” I quipped. “Birds don’t get up early enough!”

It was nice to share a knowing chuckle.  Both of us were early risers who accomplished our best work done in the hours prior to sunrise.  It was during her quiet time before her children awakened where she organized lesson plans.  My papers were corrected over coffee prior to the arrival of the morning newspaper.

Permit me to ask an indiscreet question.  How long it would be before you grew weary of being compensated for only seventy percent of the hours you worked?

What will persuade you, my compatriots?  What will convince you that this society dedicates insufficient resources to the education of children?  What tales of trial and tribulation will reach into your heart and outrage you enough to compel you to immediate political action?

Nationally, over 50% of teachers surrender by year six. Locally, between 10% and 12% of our teachers have been leaving annually for years now.  Some leave to teach elsewhere.  Some leave for other professions.  Changing jobs is not something employees do for amusement or vengeance: Changing employers is listed among the top five sources of stress in the modern world.  So, what has driven educators to become a new class of migrant worker?  The reason for these departures can be summed up in two words: job dissatisfaction.

Compensation is not the sole driver of teacher turnover, although competitive salaries might help retain some in the profession. Working conditions can drive teachers to curse the day they chose their career.

Teacher flight is about

-class sizes that border on the absurd, and being told that class size is NOT a working condition.

-numerous non-instructional duties that steal from time for planning instruction and assessing learning.

-swallowing a sandwich whole at lunch so that you can administer a make-up assessment while simultaneously calling a parent during your so-called half-hour “duty-free lunch”.

-obsolete materials in the library or book room, and stone-age audio/visual devices in the age of laserdiscs and multi-media presentation.

-changing instruction to use the overhead projector in order to save paper only to be told that there is not enough money for the 600 watt lamps required to run the projectors.

-out-of-pocket expenses for classroom decorations and supplies.

-the absence of support personnel.   

-discovering that “wish-lists” are all too appropriately named. 

-watching children sit in undersized and broken furniture.

-a roof that leaks water and windows that let in the cold compelling gear for inclement weather while indoors.

-trying to talk louder than the four fans you had to purchase in order to push hot air around a 100+ degree classroom in May, June or September.

-no paper, soap or hot-water in the restrooms.

-wondering when, if ever, you might find time to use that restroom.

-being without a classroom for four years because you teach from a cart.

-not having access to your classroom during your planning period for four years because an itinerant cart-based teacher is there.

-losing precious planning periods to substitute for colleagues because absolutely nobody wants to be a substitute.

-utility rooms reincarnated as classrooms.

-students late to class because of  transportation problems while teachers are directed to stress the importance of punctuality as a life skill.

-bureaucrats and business folk who suggest that teachers need more tasks to accomplish.

losing weeks, perhaps months, of instructional time each year to bureaucrat-mandated, irrelevant testing designed to hold the education community’s collective feet to the fire for socio-economic circumstances totally beyond its control. 

et cetera… et cetera… et cetera.

And lest it be omitted, you really have not lived until you have performed the juggling act of teaching two grade levels in the same classroom at the same time, or two different courses in the same room at the same time.  Yes, this may help with staffing & space concerns, but it’s a safe bet that the originator of this “strategy” was not a classroom-based educator attempting to convey knowledge to the next generation.

The sum of such annoyances leads teachers to abandon the classroom. Individually, any of these conditions might be tolerable.  Considered collectively, they breed hopelessness which incites despair. Coping with despair ignites the instinct for self-preservation, both personal and professional. The two options are fight or flight, and flight is frequently the easier alternative.

Fortunately, interventions are within our reach. Most can be resolved by adequate funding for our schools and equitable distribution of resources.

 For every teacher that resigns outright, how many more will lack the skills to cope with challenging circumstances? How many more will eventually take those first small, unwilling steps toward diminished expectations? Who will replace the teachers that leave and what will be their qualifications and experience?   These invisible, unknowable statistics should terrify each of us.

Teachers want to teach.  At least initially, all teachers believe in the possibility of entering a room full of young people and inspiring them to learn.  What intrepid souls!  What unfettered idealists!  Yet, here in the wealthiest nation on the planet, less than one-third of a career suffices to grind unbridled optimism into dust.

[Adapted from an editorial page Commentary in May, 2000 in the now defunct Prince George’s Journal in May, 2000]