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.]