More work needed toward workplace equality

National Women’s History Month 2016 draws to a close. After centuries of wives being regarded as chattel, social justice for women has been on the rise since the mid-19th century’s passage of the Married Women’s Property Act in a number of American states.

Faded into the role of obscure metaphorical allusion is “the rule of thumb” which, according to English jurisprudence, granted husbands the right to chastise their spouses with a stick no more broad than his thumb. 

In 1920, the power of women grew by leaps and bounds with the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States establishing universal suffrage. The fundamental civil right of all citizens to vote has forever reshaped the American political landscape. 

Dr. King would affirm decades later that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” One satisfactory benchmark for parity between the sexes remains untested: abolishing male-centric policies in the workplace around compensation and advancement. As Michael Moore proposed in “Where to Invade Next”, following Iceland’s lead and electing more women to representative bodies would be a good first step. 

We still need the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution. Despite the passage of the landmark Lilly Ledbetter Act, bending the arc of moral justice toward “equal pay for equal work” remains an as yet unachieved dream.

It is well-documented that female nurse practitioners still earn 11 percent less than their male counterparts. For decades, female physician assistants, likewise, have noted discrepancies with the income of male colleagues. It is tragic enough that women have historically found themselves disadvantaged wherever they compete directly with men.

For the so-called “pink collar careers” like teaching, professions typically staffed predominantly by women, it is unconscionable that starting salaries now frequently fail to support families, or even to service the debt acquired while pursuing the mandated credentials. 

Women, indeed, have come a long way; the work, however, is still in progress.


[The original version of the Commentary appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Gazette on March 27, 2014.]

When did Upkeep Become Cost Neutral?

All too frequently these days some member of the medical community offers sage counsel about how best to fight back against the ravages of time as though a reminder is needed that my “youth” has left the building…

Granted, such advice might have proven more useful a half-dozen concussions ago, or more utilitarian had it preceded the inhalation of acids and asbestos while working in the industrial sector, or more beneficial had I been made aware of the effects on my bladder of “holding it in” for decades during the teaching day. Having grown up in orchards in the age of DDT lingers at the back of my mind; my first adolescent “health crisis” coincided with the introduction of Teflon in the family kitchen. So, adhering to a recommended spartan regimen of diet-and-training  has been imposed to forestall the further ravages of Father Time… 

The age of inevitable decline is an ordeal, but it beats the grim alternative.

All things have a life expectancy. Some achieve it; some fail to do so. Some might even surpass it, but nothing in the material world avoids the eventual crumbling into dust. One day, even the pyramids will be a distant cultural memory should the species be so fortunate as to survive that long… 

So, pardon this grizzled, old veteran of the classroom for taking exception with our political leadership and their admonishments reported in The Baltimore Sun Times during the budget cycle in 2015: “A message to Maryland school districts from the Board of Public Works: take better care of what you have.”

A fine sentiment when resources are available, but when Superintendents are compelled to choose between “the maintenance of the physical plant” or “the delivery of instruction”, the immediate welfare of children should be our highest priority. Still, the projected cost of the backlog of much needed renovations in our public schools tallies well in excess of $2 billion. Two decades at the current rate of spending for the Capital Improvement Plan would not take care of the backlog, let alone address new needs.

The maintenance of physical plants requires sufficient resources in the line-item for Capital Improvement Projects. Much to the detriment of the architectural integrity of our schools, planned maintenance has too long been considered a legitimate budgetary “cost avoid”. Most physical plants can sustain one bad year of budgeting; a decade of postponed maintenance can take a building past the point of no return. 

Every homeowner knows the devastating effects of sunlight on exposed painted surfaces and that the actions of the universal solvent – water – will eventually lead to roof replacement. In too many years, extreme cold wreaks havoc on plumbing fixtures and exposes critical weakness in climate control.

Maintenance of a physical plant needs to be systematized beginning when a building opens. Postponing of proper maintenance – as has been the practice for decades – leads to the lunacy of contemplating a facelift when the projected date of obsolescence is at hand, or worse, in the distant past. Some of our schools buildings have nearly doubled their anticipated lifespan.

Shivering children have difficulty concentrating in classrooms where visible vapor is exhaled and active Classroom Management should not entail arranging desks around the drip buckets. Let every classroom offer respite from the elements!

Merely attending school should never become, for any parent’s child, another experience suitable for classification as an Adverse Childhood Experience.

[This Commentary originally appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Gazette on March 2, 2015. It has been slightly revised for readability and to keep it current. ]

Maintenance-of-effort law still shortchanges students


[The original of this Commentary appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Gazette on February  13, 2014. It has been slightly revised for the purpose of rendering more current.]



Is equity “too expensive” for the children of Prince George’s?

     In his book Savage Inequalities Jonathan Kozol pointed out that a Maryland task force on school funding suggested to the governor in 1983 that “100 percent equality was too expensive” a proposition, and that, therefore “the poorest districts should be granted no less than three quarters of the funds at the disposal of the average district.” Decades after the Supreme Court had ruled that “separate” is inherently “unequal” and moved forward -however slowly –  with desegregation, Maryland enacted a policy that suggested “unequal” education was just fine for the socio-economically disadvantaged. 

     More than three decades later, and a decade following the passage of the landmark Bridge to Excellence Act,  based on the renowned work of the Thornton Commission chaired by Dr. Alvin Thornton, the children of Prince George’s are still experiencing the legacy of that Orwellian public policy. Just last year Worcester County budgeted approximately $17,093 per student while Prince George’s County has budgeted about $14,813. Thornton funding has closed the gap somewhat, but equity has yet to be achieved for children living below the poverty line. [See link: 2015 Per pupil Spending in Maryland ] 

     Nationally this year 91% of school funding, approximately $550 billion dollars, will be allocated locally for schools, mostly derived from real estate taxes. The current funding stream virtually guarantees that the quality of education will be determined by the average net worth of homes in a zip code. 

     Should Prince Georgian’s be heartened by the fact that our per-pupil spending has closed the gap to 86 percent of our more wealthy neighbors? Or do we owe it to our children to improve still further and, in so doing, offer ALL the children of this community the surest path to breaking the chain of poverty? Or will we allow those who have maximized their opportunities to pull the ladder up behind them? The answer to each question should be abundantly clear.

      Today, two words should strike terror into the heart of every Prince Georgian with a child in school. Two words should inspire every supporter of public education in Prince George’s County to political action. These same two words need to be excised from our political lexicon and our regional rites of spring. What are these two words?

-Budget Reconciliation.

     Our superintendent will likely soon be compelled to do what all effective educators always attempt when the allocations do not match the budget request: make do. As much needed line-items are deleted by the doctrine of cost-avoidance made famous by a previous superintendent, the Superintendent/CEO must deploy inadequate resources for maximum effect.  What an onerous, unenviable task to befall someone who has devoted a lifetime to children.

Whose dreams does one elect to quash? Whose aspirations get trampled? 

  • Is it the students on the cusp of possible success who watch beneficial programs of study disappear?
  • Is it the teachers who dream of reaching each-and-every student that will find themselves hopelessly overwhelmed by unreasonable class sizes?
  • Is it the administrators who will witness the dismantling of effective learning environments as necessary resources are withheld?

None of these alternatives should be acceptable outcomes for our children, or the children of our neighbors.

     Still, these are among the options that we face if this community does not unite behind the Board of Education and Superintendent in the struggle to furnish adequate resources to the children of our neighbors. Everyone who cares about education in this county needs to engage in the political fray that threatens the well-being of children.

     We must not misdirect our efforts!

    Our struggle lies with the funding authority of the Prince George’s County Public Schools and an electorate that has permitted inequities to flourish for as long as any of us can remember. Struggle we must, however, lest we be counted among those that Frederick Douglass chastised for expecting food without plowing the ground. Otherwise, what fate awaits us with the next, inevitable economic downturn?

     Unlike in previous budget cycles, the County Executive, Rushern Baker, and members of the County Council are spreading the word that commitment to public education signals to businesses contemplating a relocation that Prince George’s County is a healthy and vibrant community. If we want the stability of families choosing to make a life in Prince George’s County, potential newcomers need to see a community commitment to the public schools.  It is incumbent on Main Street to make doing otherwise a politically untenable position.

     In the long term our elected leadership needs to establish policies and procedures that will effect full-funding for the public schools at levels that will meet the educational needs of all children at optimal levels. Our leadership must continue to demonstrate to the naysayers who resist such ideas why these policies are in the best interest of the common welfare.

     Long ago this great nation recognized the error of its ways and abolished the practice of fractional apportionment of votes based on race. Perhaps, the historical moment has arrived for this community to lead the way in abolishing the practice of fractional apportionment of educational opportunities based on socio-economic status. Until such time as this goal is attained, until such time as we furnish every child a truly equal setting at the American banquet, until the entire community embraces the sacred trust of educating the next generation, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “We must not be satisfied.”


[A much updated & revised more current version of a “Viewpoint” that first appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Journal on June 4, 2001.]



Beware the Potholes on the Road to Educational Reform

ford-model-t-pics-17837Some years agos, a story appeared about the efforts undertaken by a certain midwesterner to keep his antique Model T running. The tires were increasingly difficult to find. He lamented that, even in junkyards, it was nearly impossible to locate spare parts. More than once he had been obliged to improvise temporary repairs. The gentleman so loved his old car that he would take broken or worn parts to a local machinist and have them rebuilt from scratch for what might be considered extravagant prices.

He was frustrated that he could only take his car out late at night or early Sunday mornings because it could no longer compete with the faster automobiles of today and their increasingly impatient drivers. Even tractors had more acceleration than his carefully maintained relic.

He confessed an irrational inability to let go of reminders of the halycon days of his youth.

His situation is an apt metaphor for the perils of Public Education in our time.

In my father’s days as a student, and to some degree even my own, the goal of Public Education was to supply an adequate education for all students possessing the will to avail themselves of the opportunity. A high school drop out rate of twenty-five percent was acceptable. Another twenty-five percent placed in college was a laudable goal. Fifty percent of students went out into the world with no more than a high school diploma.

Generally speaking, dropouts were consigned to menial or manual labor a century ago. If students left school able to read well enough to follow instructions and if they knew enough math to balance their checkbooks, then they could find a job in the industrial manufacturing base where the wages, if not conducive to comfort, were at least livable. Those who furthered their education found positions in leadership and management.

It may not have been the best possible system in educational achievement. However, the need for unskilled labor was great, so it was deemed generally utilitarian.

Recently, however, there has been a precipitous drop in the number of industrial manufacturing jobs. In the never-ending quest for profits, Capital is taking advantage of an increased reliance on robotics here at home or cheap labor overseas. Hence, the set of skills required by our young people to compete in the post-industrial society has changed irrevocably.

More importantly, the compendium of human knowledge has doubled in size every seven years during the same period.

Children entering school today will have to know more upon receipt of their high school diploma than college students needed to know upon graduation a couple generations ago.   Furthermore, the base of children who will have to meet such standards in order to be considered “educated” has widened to exceed 90%. Today, the goal is to educate very nearly every student (even those unmotivated to learn!).

The goals of Public Education have changed immeasurably in the last fifty years. Our schools are beset by ever increasing responsibilities and expectations. Unfortunately, the models of the school day and school year have changed negligibly. The allocation of resources as a percentage of the Gross National Product remains stagnant.

This nation still employs the 42-week agrarian calendar although our children-of-the-cornucopia no longer typically spend their summer in the fields.   We still place too many children in front of too few teachers for too many minutes of the teacher’s workday with minimal resources at hand. Working conditions for our educators are scarcely adequate to execute appropriate custodial care, much less so when it comes to setting rigorous and meaningful academic standards.

There will never be an educational model that solves this nation’s academic woes if it does not address the following:

  • more reasonable caseloads.
  • fewer minutes of direct teacher/student interface time for teachers.
  • more time-on-task for students across the calendar year.
  • compensation & benefits packages that will attract more of our best minds to the teaching profession (and, hopefully, keep them there!).

Any proposals that do not address these four fundamental issues are akin to tinkering with a model that has moved beyond obsolescence toward the status of an antiquity.   Educators continue to point to the absurdity of it all, but few policymakers elect to process the message.

Bureaucrats and policymakers pretend that holding teachers and/or students “accountable” will improve performance. In the meantime, our schools are on the verge of becoming little more than Standardized Test Administration Centers.

If tests improved education, teachers would give a test every day. Meanwhile, psychometricians are driving educational policy while teachers watch still more instructional days disappear from the calendar. What is achieved via testing? An old Model T on a modern dynamometer is still going to exhibit the emissions of an old Model T, isn’t it? Only so much improvement can be coaxed out of an archaic technology.

  • Boost the octane to improve engine performance? The engine breaks down.
  • Replace the engine with a more modern one? The transmission fails.
  • Load it with too many occupants? The suspension collapses.
  • Enter it in the Indy 500? It will finish dead last.
  • Blame the driver? A résumé will go out in the morning.

This is what it is like to teach in the Public Schools today. Teachers endure every day the unbearable prospect of being expected to accomplish the improbable with the often unwilling while supplied next to nothing to perform the task, and all the while being publicly ridiculed by certain conservative radio talk-show hosts for “failures” that are due to circumstances entirely beyond their control. Do you really wonder why half of all new teachers leave the profession within five years?

How long would you drive a Model T before you decided it was time to try another mode of transportation?

The former president of the National Education Association, Bob Chase, beseeched our membership not only to teach students the Pledge of Allegiance, but also to teach America to pledge allegiance to her children. It is clear to many educators, however, that too many citizens prefer to drive the Model T instead and just complain about the lack of performance. Let’s cover it up, put it in the museum where it belongs, and figure out how to finance a better performing model.

[The original version of this commentary appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Gazette circa 2014. It has been slightly revised.]

No time for two steps forward and three steps back!

“An unjust law is a code that a majority inflicts on a minority that is not binding on itself. This is difference made legal.”   Letter from a Birmingham Jail Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Ultimately, how our state chooses to address the educational needs of all children concerns us not only as citizens, but as immortal beings. Our fates are wrapped up in the fates of the most powerless among us, those who cannot vote. True equity and adequacy of educational opportunity for all children is in both the spirit and the letter of the Bridge to Excellence Act. However, it must be noted that the Free State still allows “difference” to be made legal in the schoolhouse and it would honor Dr. King’s memory if that could be changed.

Because “class size” is not classified a “working condition” in the state of Maryland, neighboring school systems can have different staffing ratios that create vastly different learning environments for children. Equity does not exist when our school system can only afford to hire forty-seven teachers per thousand students and their school system is able to afford more than sixty teachers per thousand. Delivering instruction to thirty-plus economically disadvantaged students will never be the same job as teaching twenty, or fewer, affluent students with access to a superfluity of resources.

Nor is there adequacy when our school system must choose gasoline for the school buses OR books for the media center and their school system manages to budget for both. Such inequities have existed in Maryland for decades and the cascade of effects all roll down on student achievement as a result of teacher burnout and teacher turnover in the understaffed and inadequately equipped jurisdictions.

Half a century after Brown vs. the Board of Education, it is simply unconscionable that this society permits children-of-color and children-of-poverty to attend schools that are ill-prepared to deliver the services mandated by both the state and the nation and that misguided business model accountability measures threaten to do even further harm. This practice constitutes “difference made legal”.

It is no longer a mystery that the most effective schools tend to be blessed with greater resources – both human and material – the only mystery is why our political structure cannot achieve consensus on how to make those resources available to every child in every school. This despite the mandate of Article 8 in the Constitution of Maryland “The General Assembly, at its First Session after the adoption of this Constitution, shall by Law establish throughout the State a thorough and efficient System of Free Public Schools; and shall provide by taxation, or otherwise, for their maintenance.”

The passion that helped fill the streets of Annapolis in support of the Thornton recommendations must be rekindled, and we must call on our legislators to have the courage to stand for all children. Article 8, too, is a promissory note, not unlike the one described in Dr. King’s most famous speech. Maryland has made great strides in moving toward equity in the schoolhouse, though to be truly just on the moral plane, a thorough and efficient system of free public schools must render “sameness” legal for all parties.


[The original version of this Commentary appeared in the Prince George’s Gazette in 2015.]

The ABC’s of Teacher Turnover

Walking a mile in the shoes of a rank-and-file public school teacher is not generally an option for the public, but understanding the challenges confronted by professional educators might serve to elevate the public discourse on the topic of improving our schools. Grasping the complexity and intensity of the teaching experience is critical to moving the debate about allocating appropriate human and material resources to the education of all children.

      Imagine yourself as a teacher. You enter your classroom to look out on a sea of more than thirty faces. A few smiles;  a few frowns;  too few students seem actively engaged in your agenda as heads are already pressed down on the desk before instruction even begins. None seem particularly enthused about the task at hand as you walk them through the warm-up. One student sighs when you begin to give the directions. A few classmates perform compliance rituals but intellectual focus is not observable. The ten minute homework assignment, if completed, is partial and poorly written. Your students recall little from yesterday’s lesson. You help the three who were absent to catch up. Three more are absent today.

     For the next fifty minutes you aspire to fulfill your role as a purveyor of knowledge, as a shaper of young minds, as an architect of America’s future. But, instead of conveying knowledge you must spend ten to fifteen minutes addressing classroom management issues (i.e. student disputes, off-task behavior, outright misbehavior, passes, transitions, etc). You are interrupted a handful of times : knocks at the door, the public address system, boisterous hall walkers.  Ironically, you think to yourself, “Today’s lesson is going fairly well…”

Now imagine that for a few minutes you are telepathic and can divine the mostly-unspoken inner secrets of your students. Nothing can really prepare the casual observer for the sheer tally of emotional baggage that arrives in any given classroom room each and every day …

(Each of these caricatures is based on an actual student. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.)

  • Allen is a teenage alcoholic.
  • Betty is regularly beaten.
  • Christine is a “cutter” and cannot be trusted with sharps.
  • Diane has dyslexia.
  • Elaine is an emancipated adult.
  • Frank carries a firearm.
  • Greg & Gina are bullied for being openly gay .
  • Harry is HIV positive; Harriet is homeless.
  • Irene is an illegal alien (and evading the INS!)
  • Jay was released from jail in June.
  • Kevin’s brother  was killed in a drive-by.
  • Larry has been a  latch-key child since the second grade.
  • Mary was molested by her stepfather.
  • Nadine appears narcoleptic.
  • Oscar is an orphan in foster care.
  • Pam is pregnant (again!)
  • Quinton is quitting school.
  • Rachel has been raped.
  • Steve is suicidal; Sylvia is into substance abuse.
  • Thomas is twenty and still in high school. 
  • Ursula is unruly.
  • Vickie lost her virginity at eleven.
  • Warren works full-time to help the family.
  • Xavier is uninsured, but needs x-rays.
  • Yvette cares for her five younger siblings.
  • …and Zoe has a 0.0 GPA.

-Thirty children.

-Thirty challenges.

-This is your smallest class.

A feeling of dread mounts as you entertain the thought that you have six such classes on your caseload, and realize that you will never know all the baggage that your students transport to class. You may find yourself experiencing a twinge of guilt for no longer wanting to know. With caseloads approaching 500 students, how much support will the guidance counselors and administration provide?

     Few professions can claim to have a more altruistic labor base than teaching. Teachers want to teach. Teachers dream of planning and presenting perfect lessons. They seek to motivate learners. They aspire to hold learners accountable for their learning and relish the reward of student work demonstrating growth over time. 

 Go to your child’s school and spend an entire school day. Be sure to arrive at 6 a.m. and leave at 9 p.m. You will find teachers and administrators who arrive hours early and depart hours late. Teachers sponsor clubs; coach sports; offer tutoring; correct never-ending stacks of papers late into the night; prepare lesson plans outside the contract day; inform parents of their child’s progress; coax, cajole, inspire, beg and plead in the hope of getting students to learn. Then, they attempt to comply with the directives to personalize all their lesson plans to address the needs of each individual student. If they are fortunate,  they will accomplish some small portion of the task in their “copious” planning time of a so-called 50 uninterrupted minutes. More likely, however, they will polish a lesson plan, correct one class set of papers, call parents,  confer with colleagues, update records, write disciplinary referrals and, hopefully, find time to address biological needs.

And, all this educators do for a yearly salary that would not inspire loyalty in a good car mechanic. 

The realization soon sets in: This work is never finished! Even if a teacher were able to devote 24/7 to the profession, the “to do” list would never grow shorter. The question then becomes: What portion of your personal life do you sacrifice for the greater good?  Unfortunately, it will NOT be the part time job you took to make ends meet. Nor will it be the coursework for your Master’s that you must complete (and fund!) to maintain your teaching license.

In the 1980’s John I. Goodlad reported in  A Place Called School  that the top 50% of teaching candidates -as measured by class-rank and GPA –  leave the profession within seven years.  How can this be?  When did teaching become an avocation instead of a vocation?

The reasons are many.  But according to Goodlad, while money was not even listed as a priority for choosing the profession, it rose to second place on the list as a reason for abandoning it. Working conditions were first. Teaching is now considered a stepping stone on the career track; time in the classroom has evolved into little more than a résumé enhancer.

The first round of departures are generally the “pie-in-sky” idealists. They are usually novices. They are often under the impression that teaching will be fun.  It is not too long before all those holidays are simply time to catch up.  Sometimes it can be something simple that sends them packing… Perhaps a student requests they perform an anatomically impossible act…  Perhaps an entire class refuses to complete assignments…  Perhaps it will be a student load that approaches 200 and a belief that they must correct every student paper… 

In a macabre ritual reminiscent of the first-night in The Shawshank Redemption, senior teachers have been known to run winner-take-all “pools” based on the date and/or person to first resign. There is quite often a winner in the first weeks of the school year.  One year, the first resignation occurred before the pool could be formed; another year, a prospective teacher signed a contract, then investigated the reputation of the school in question, and failed to report for duty.  Seldom does a year go by that some novice educator fails to wave the white flag before the first holiday break. How can a someone spend four years or more preparing for a career and still not be aware of what they will encounter?

The novices are followed closely by the mercenaries. The mercenaries quickly calculate the grossly inadequate economic return for the energy expended in challenging educational scenarios. These teacher candidates sometimes find another school system with higher pay scales. Often, super-qualified and highly sought after,  someone in private industry makes an offer that doubles and sometimes triples their current salary.  Au revoir les enfants! Greener pastures beckon!  Who can blame them? It is no small challenge to raise a family on the wages offered beginning teachers. 

In the range of two-to-six years come the first wave of premature burnout victims.  This last stage of early departures is usually the direct result of other life priorities. Usually, these individuals have been committing the time it takes to perform the job of educating their students. The seventy-hour work week of the first-year teacher has dwindled down to the fifty-five hour week of the more experienced crew, but there is little room for improvement beyond that.  Suddenly, they find themselves no longer able to do the job.   Marriage is proposed; a child is born; a parent becomes ill; the job of teaching well becomes an untenable burden instead of a joy. Teaching is a joy until life happens.

Who decides to stay for the long run?  Altruists for whom money is not of primary importance and who understand the importance of education to the next generation. Specialists for whom the passion for  an intellectual discipline affords fewer opportunities in the private sector.  Pragmatists who, if not entirely accepting of what they can not change, are at least able to discover ways to work around the barriers. 

Even the best of these will get worn down eventually. No matter how committed, no matter how much you love the job,  weariness is inevitable.  Thus begins the quest for short-cuts where,  at least occasionally,  one succumbs to the temptation is to teach to the lowest-common-denominator.

Our society pays much lip-service to the importance of education in our democratic society.  To date we have only talked the talk; we have yet to demonstrate a collective willingness to walk the walk.  Never forget that the intellect of a child is a fragile seed hoping to land on fertile soil.  We can no longer afford to lose half to barren ground.  It is up to all of us to turn and amend that soil to give the seeds of intellect a chance to grow.  Teachers want only the tools and sufficient time to turn that soil, because teachers really are the gardeners of humankind. We must commit the resources necessary for the education of all children. To quote Mikhail Gorbachev, “God will not forgive us if we fail.”

[This is a much revised version of my first commentary in the now defunct Prince George’s Journal. The original version, much longer, appeared circa 1998.]

Who is Accountable for Classroom Claustrophobia?

The View from the Blackboard?

The second president of the United States, John Adams, knew that education would be the firmest foundation for American society. He sagely counseled, “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy,…in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.”

Americans have long cherished the belief that it is the duty of each generation to afford its heirs the opportunity to provide themselves a better life. Through education and self-actualization, our children might one day eliminate pestilence and poverty giving rise to an era of global peace and prosperity as yet unimagined. Who among us would dare wish for the contrary?

Two centuries ago few children achieved little more than the rudiments of reading and writing. A century later most children attained modest levels of functional literacy. A few decades ago child labor laws removed children from the hazards of exploitative and dangerous labor practices saving countless thousands of limbs and lives. Today, most children acquire a high school diploma.

We have come so far, but we have so far yet to go!

Today, much of what students are expected to learn in high school has been discovered in the years since their grandparents graduated. The children of current students will be obliged to acquire knowledge that has yet to be discovered. What Sir Francis Bacon referred to as “The Knowledge of the State” is doubling every seven years, but funding for the public schools, as a percentage of the Gross National Product, has not changed appreciably in decades.

This generation risks becoming the first American generation to fail to meet the challenge of readying students for the workplace that awaits them. And why is this? Taxpayers do not see the need for improving working conditions for teachers or learning conditions for children.

Nowhere is this more evident than with the issue of class size.

For years now, educators have been informing anyone who will listen that large class size negatively impacts student achievement. Well-designed, longitudinal research was performed in Tennessee. The research clearly demonstrated the positive effects of reduced class size in the early elementary years on student achievement in subsequent years. The conclusions were unequivocal.

Yet, there are still ideologues who claim that lowering class size constitutes “throwing money at the problem” of lackluster performance in our schools. They inform us that students in other countries achieve academically despite large classes while conveniently omitting the fact that most of those countries “weed out” low achievers by the age of fourteen by placing them in apprenticeships or in the workforce.

The student load confronted by teachers in any high-poverty school system is simply overwhelming, and the welfare of children is not served by increasing compensation for educators if that means returning to a more overcrowded classroom each autumn. Why should the concept of workload stress be any less relevant for educators than it is any other human undertaking?

Let’s assume there are two footraces this weekend. The first is fifteen kilometers and the second will cover thirty. Which race do you suppose will have the highest percentage of drop-outs? Which race will be run at the fastest pace?

Let’s put two barbells on the floor. The first weighs 150 pounds and the second is loaded with 300. Which barbell are lifters most likely to raise from the floor? With which weight will the lifters perform the highest number of repetitions?

Yet, we routinely place 30 students in a room with one adult (and sometimes even 40!) for nearly 300 minutes a day, despite knowing that efficiency would be improved by reducing both numbers. Now, in the Age of Accountability,  bureaucrats hope to pass judgement on teachers when “educational outcomes” are less than optimal.

Even car manufacturers in Detroit learned that listening to their labor partners and slowing the assembly line produced better cars, reduced product recalls and increased morale. It is a lesson that must soon be applied to Public Education.

Think carefully, now!

All other things being equal, would you rather have your surgery done by an overworked doctor performing thirty procedures a day, or one performing half that number? When are medical mistakes more likely to occur?

Would you rather have your case tried by a public defender assigned thirty difficult and complicated cases, or one assigned only fifteen? Which lawyer is more likely to overlook something crucial to your defense?

So, should your child be sitting in a marginally equipped room with 29  classmates (or more!) and one overworked, under-compensated professional educator who corrected papers and wrote lesson plans into the wee morning hours? Can we not agree that a teacher and a child would have a better opportunity to connect emotionally and intellectually in a less cramped environment?

Elizabeth Cady Stanton once said, “To throw obstacles in the way of a complete education is like putting out the eyes.” Placing our children and their teachers in overcrowded conditions is an inexcusable hindrance to the future success of both… Therefore, the community must resolve to remove this impediment from the path to sustained academic excellence. Moreover, if we do not accept the responsibility of providing adequate resources to all learners, then many children will forever wander anonymously in the crowd of students competing for the teacher’s attention.

All children deserve a better fate.

Further Reading:

[This commentary originally appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Journal circa 2000.]

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.

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.]