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(en) The Utopian #3 - My Life as a Dog, I Mean a Teacher, An Essay with Anecdotes By RON TABOR I. (1/3)

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Fri, 7 Feb 2003 03:32:24 -0500 (EST)


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PART I--MALIGN NEGLECT
Introduction--a Story
It was the end of the school year for D Track and I was about
to go off-track (meaning "go on vacation," for those working
in year-round, multi-track schools). My students' last day was
a Friday in mid-May. Monday was a "pupil-free" day (a day

Left: Elementary school class; right: Adriana Mendez teaches two Texas school
 districts, one via TV hookup. (Coastal Bend Telecommunications Network)

teachers are required to report for work even though their
kids are not present). D Track teachers were supposed to work
in our rooms, but since another class had moved into mine, I
wasn't able to. Instead, I spent the entire day doing paper
work, specifically, "closing cums" (pronounced "kyooms"--
the students' cumulative records), in the library.

I came to school on Tuesday, which was a "buy-back " day
for D Track. I still don't know who is buying what back
from whom, but since we get paid extra for being there 
and since our principal wants us to come (unlike pupil-free
days, these are voluntary), I decided to show up. Usually
these buy-back days are reserved for "staff development":
workshops, videos and other activities that are meant to
enhance teachers' knowledge and/or skills but rarely do.
On Tuesday, D Track teachers were to go on "Learning
Walks." These are excursions into other teachers' classrooms
while they are teaching (or trying to), to look at their rooms
and to talk, in a non-disruptive manner of course, to their
students about what they are learning and why, and how
they know whether they are doing a good job or not.
As the name suggests, these visits are ostensibly designed for
teachers to learn from each other, but they are really a way
for administrators and those above them in the educational
hierarchy to make sure that teachers and their classrooms
are in compliance with federal and state laws and school
district guidelines, and that teachers are implementing the
educational fad currently in vogue. (One of these is "clear
expectations": kids supposedly learn better when they have
a clear idea of what they are learning, what is expected of
them, and when they know whether they are doing a good
job or not. Hence the questioning of the kids. Believe it or
not, somebody is making a career out of this.) 
As we were waiting in the library to get started, our coordina-
tor (a teacher who volunteers to be out of the classroom for a
year or more to carry out and oversee various tasks mandated
by federal law in order for our school to qualify for federal
monies), came in. She needed a Spanish-speaking teacher to
give the SABE exam (basically, an achievement test in
Spanish), to some students, and I aggressively volunteered my
services, as I was anxious to get out of the Learning Walks (or
any other kind of staff development, for that matter).
I followed the coordinator to her office, where we collected
the test materials, the students and another woman whom 
I then didn't know (but who is now my teaching assistant),
whence we proceeded to an empty classroom. There the
other woman and I were to give the exam to students from
at least four different grades simultaneously. The SABE is a

Spanish-style architecture, Palm Springs, CA. (Arthur Coleman Photography)
test, given over several days, that children who are recent
enrollees in the school system and whose families speak
Spanish in the home are required to take. It is, roughly, the
Spanish equivalent of the SAT-9 test, which has been given
to students every year for the past several years and which
will be replaced by another test next year.
At some point during the testing session, I noticed that one
student, a fourth grader, was having trouble finishing sections
of the exam in the allotted time. When, during a break, I
spoke to the kids in English, I realized that this particular girl
was totally fluent; indeed, she spoke without any accent what-
soever. I asked her whether she spoke Spanish. She replied
that she spoke it but read and wrote it "only a little." She also
told me that she had been born in Los Angeles and had
recently transferred to our school from a parochial school
nearby. It seemed to me that this child should not be taking
this test, even though she was working at it very gamely.
When the testing was over, I went to the coordinator and
asked her why this girl was taking the SABE. She insisted
that the child was required to take it because on the Home
Language Survey (a form parents fill out when enrolling a
child), her parents had written "Spanish" and because the
child had been in the country for less than a year. Since this
latter piece of information conflicted with what the girl had
told me, I decided to pursue the issue. (Nosy me.) I looked
in the file drawer where the cums for her class were, but I

Los Angeles Central Library and Library Tower. (Matthew Weathers)

couldn't find hers. I then went to her classroom to talk to her
teacher. When I indicated my concern, this teacher told me,
somewhat exasperatedly, that she had already objected to the
girl taking the test, since the child didn't read or write
Spanish and was missing valuable instructional time. Despite
this, the teacher continued, the coordinator had insisted that
the student had to take the exam for the reasons she had
cited. I then asked the teacher to see the results of the
CELDT, a newly mandated test, to be given annually at the
beginning of each school year, designed to assess students'
fluency in English. Neither the child's name nor her test
results were on the computer printout. It looked to me like

she hadn't been given the test. As it turned out, the child's
cum was in the teacher's mailbox, and when I finally looked
at it, it showed that she had indeed been born in Los Angeles
and that her parents had written "Spanish" as the language
spoken in the home. It looked to me that what had happened
was that since the child had arrived at our school in the mid-
dle of the school year, after the CELDT had been given to the
rest of the class, no one had remembered to give it to her.
And since she was a new enrollee in the school district and
since her parents had indicated that her home language was
Spanish, it was automatically assumed down at district head-
quarters that the child was new to the country, knew no
English and was required to take the SABE. As a result, her
name appeared on the computerized form, indicating who
was to take the exam, that was sent to our coordinator. All
that needed to be done, it seemed, was to give the child the
CELDT, which would prove that she was fluent in English,
and to indicate the error to the people downtown, so that the
child wouldn't be saddled with low scores on a test she could
barely read.
When I mentioned this to our diligent but overworked coordi-
nator, she started screaming: Why did I talk to the child's
teacher? She told me I wasn't supposed to. Now the teacher
would blame her, etc., etc. I told her that nobody would blame
her, that the child just needed to be given the CELDT, and that
instead of being pissed off at me for talking to the teacher, she
should be glad I had figured out what the problem was. This
altercation took place in our school's copy room, where our
principal was reproducing some materials. Although I inten-
tionally spoke loud enough so that she could hear the sub-
stance of our dispute, she pretended she hadn't heard and
walked out of the room. Later on, she asked me whether I had
wanted her to intervene in whatever was going on between the
coordinator and me. I assured her that we had worked every-
thing out. She never asked me what the issue was.
Two weeks later, when I returned to school for a meeting, I
found in my mailbox a copy of a reference sheet, supplied to
the coordinator from district headquarters, indicating which
students were required to take the SABE. It showed that stu-
dents who had been enrolled in a California public school
district school for less than one year and whose parents had
indicated on the child's enrollment forms that Spanish was
spoken in the home were obligated to take the test. So, the
coordinator was right after all; the poor girl was indeed sup-
posed to take the test (despite the fact that she could barely
read Spanish), although not quite for the reasons the coordi-
nator had originally indicated.
Welcome to public education, Los Angeles-style, in the early
years of the new millennium! I've devoted so much space to
this minor incident because the only way to truly understand
the state of our school system is to see it from the inside,
where the view is graphic but where, in part as a result of
inertia and in part by design, those of us who are in the mid-
dle of the mess trying to make it work are powerless to do
anything to change it.
What follows is an essay on the situation in our public
schools, seen from my particular vantage point, a middle-
aged, somewhat cynical former political activist, working in
an inner-city school in Los Angeles, California, part of the
massive Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). I will
try to convey a feel for what it is like to work in such an
environment, as well as my impressions of the state of our
public school system locally and nationally. I do not pretend
that this is a thoroughly researched, balanced and detailed
presentation. Nor is it a fleshed-out memoir. I'm too tired to
produce either of these. It is, rather, an impressionistic work
designed as much to vent my frustrations as to inform those
who may be curious. It is mostly, then, a form of therapy,
which I, and I believe most others working in the public
schools, need. To those looking for an in-depth critique of
what, from a democratic, egalitarian and libertarian point of
view, is the matter with our public school system and a cre-
ative vision of what truly liberated schools would look like, I
apologize. Perhaps I am only making excuses, but I've lived
too many years under an unjust social system and worked
too long in the public schools to be able to develop such an
analysis. In short, I am not liberated: my imagination has
been truncated and my hopes tamed. All I am equipped to
do is, I hope, shed a little light on why the system cannot
even do what it is supposed to: teach our kids how to read
and write, do some math, know a few things about science
and history, and be able to think for themselves.

The Crisis in Education Is Not New
Over the past few years, we've heard a great deal about the
"crisis in education." George W. Bush insists he's the "educa-
tion president," Congress and state legislatures have passed
bills designed to solve the purported crisis and the issue has
been discussed into the ground in the media, mostly by peo-
ple who don't know much about it. To listen to the chatter,
one would think the crisis is a relatively recent phenomenon.
In fact, the public school system, throughout the country but
particularly in the inner cities (meaning, working-class, poor
and minority neighborhoods in urban areas), has been in bad
shape for decades. Those who remember the struggles over
integration, community control and busing of the 1950s, 60s
and 70s can attest to this. These conflicts would not have
taken place, or at least would not have been as intense as they
were, had the school system been doing its job. As much as
these battles were about integration or civil rights, they were
also over scarcity, a scarcity of truly good schools and of the
resources required to create and sustain them. My guess is
that the crisis goes back further than that, but that much of
the problem was hidden from white people, and therefore the
consciousness of the country as a whole, as a result of segre-

Justice William O. Douglas wrote 1974 "Lau" opinion on bilin-
gual education. (U.S. Supreme Court)

gation. White schools may have been good or at least OK.
But I suspect that schools for most Black and Latino children,
with some exceptions, have always been poor (or at least
poorer than those for white kids), though most whites didn't
know about it until Black people began to mobilize around
this and other issues in the mid-1950s.
Another indication that the schools have been in crisis for
a long time is the periodic curricular and methodological
innovations that have been introduced over the years.
(If the system were working well, why would one want to
change it?) As an example, in California for around two
decades, students not yet fluent in English were subjected
to something that was called bilingual education, which
________________________
Teachers and administrators will blame the parents, and the politi-
cians, experts and bureaucrats will look like they're doing some-
thing about the situation. In other words, teachers and administra-
tors, who have little power to institute basic changes, will be "held
accountable," while the politicians, experts and bureaucrats, who do
have power (and therefore the responsibility), will be let off the
hook. And the kids still won't learn. (Hey, sounds like a plan!)
------------------------
has now been largely phased out. This intended panacea
would not have been tried had children of immigrant
families been graduating from high schools with a good
grasp of English and other subject matters. The program
was the result of a lawsuit filed in the early 1970s by a
Chinese man, a Mr. Lau. He had gone all the way through
school in San Francisco, and had even graduated, but, if
I remember correctly from my classes in bilingual
methodology, hadn't even learned much English, let alone
anything else. In other words, California schools were
pretty crappy back then.
So, in fact, the crisis of public education has been around
for a while, but, at least for much of this period, it man-
aged to remain under the political radar. It became a polit-
ical and media issue again relatively recently, primarily as a
result of the frenetic economic expansion of the late 1990s.
At that time, the pace of economic growth, particularly in
the "hi-tech" sectors, was so rapid that businesses were
having trouble finding qualified workers. There was, in
other words, a labor shortage, most notably, one of educat-
ed, skilled workers. Obviously, the public school system
wasn't doing its job. At the same time, the boom created
budget surpluses, which made it possible to begin to
address the problem; at least it eliminated the excuse for
not doing anything about it. Unfortunately, the solutions
proposed by both major political parties have been more
of the character of tinkering, albeit expensive tinkering,
than of making fundamental changes. Thus, the center-
piece of President Bush's program is regular testing to hold
schools, administrators and teachers "accountable."
(Teachers, students and parents are currently being sub-
jected to a barrage--a veritable mania--of testing.) But
neither his nor any of the other proposals on the table
offers any substantive ideas about how to truly improve
poorly performing schools. (Nor are any of the pro-
posed remedies to fix the schools based on a concrete
analysis of what's the matter with them.) Conse-
quently, this is how I expect things will work. If, at 
any particular school, the students' test scores don't
improve significantly, the teachers and their adminis-
trators will first be given pep talks, then scolded and
forced to sign pledges to work harder, etc. (while,
throughout, being forced to sit through inter-
minable, utterly boring and totally useless meet-
ings). If the kids' scores still don't go up, teachers
and administrators will be fired or transferred and
a new crew will be brought in to try their hand at
raising the scores under the same basic circum-
stances. I gather that, in addition, schools whose
test scores do not go up sufficiently will be "pun-
ished" by having money taken away from them
(Naughty schools!) and, presumably, given to
parents to help them pay for tutors (or maybe
even vouchers). But how will this help the
schools in question? To anybody who knows
anything about the school system, the result is
predictable: angry parents will blame the teach-
ers and administrators, teachers and adminis-
trators will blame the parents, and the politi-
cians, experts and bureaucrats will look like
they're doing something about the situation. In
other words, teachers and administrators, who have lit-
tle power to institute basic changes, will be "held account-
able," while the politicians, experts and bureaucrats, who do
have power (and therefore the responsibility), will be let off the
hook. And the kids still won't learn. (Hey, sounds like a plan!)
In any case, the economic boom of the 1990s has now collapsed, and the
downturn has hit the hi-tech industries 
particularly hard. As a result, the labor
shortage has eased, state budget surpluses 
have been replaced with deficits, and schools'
budgets, never sufficient to enable them to 
function effectively, and other vital services, are
being slashed. In LA, the district has 
increased maximum class sizes (now up to 36 for grades
four and five) and cut teachers' aides and other auxiliary per-
sonnel and services (such as the time a nurse is on campus).
It also tried to cut our health benefits until, under the union's
prodding, it found enough money to maintain them at their
current levels, but only for one year. (The district is so incom-
petent it doesn't even know how much money it has.)
Although, as I write this, the district is crowing about the fact
that our test scores have gone up four years straight (more on
this later), I suspect that whatever progress that may have
occurred in recent years will soon end, tests scores will level
off or even decline and the "education crisis" will fade away.
Until next time.

T    he Crisis in The Public Sector
Not only is the crisis of education not a recent phenome-
non, it is also not an isolated one. In fact, the entire public
sector in the United States is in deep trouble. Virtually
everywhere one looks, the institutions and facilities that

make up the country's public and semi-public infrastruc-
ture are deteriorating. The highways are in drastic need of
repair and expansion. The nation's railroads, bridges, tun-
nels and overpasses are all overworked and eroding. The
airports are over-crowded: access roads are jammed, termi-
nals are too small, gates and available runway space are too
limited for the number of planes flown (the risk of crashes
on the ground, not just in the air, is very high), and the
entire air traffic control system needs to be revamped. Not
to mention airport security. County hospitals and clinics
and other medical facilities are disaster areas and facing
further cuts: beds and staff are being eliminated, emer-
gency rooms are being closed, while those that are left are
forced to provide routine, as well as catastrophic, medical
care to millions of people without medical coverage.
Emergency medical response teams are also in short supply
and overworked. There is a national shortage of nurses and,
I assume, all sorts of other medical personnel. They are even
cutting funds devoted to financing doctors' residencies, an
essential part of doctors' training. Police departments
around the country are having trouble recruiting enough
people to fill out their rosters. As the recent power crisis in
California and the accompanying Enron debacle reveal, the
national power infrastructure is in need of expansion (and
significant reform). Water treatment and sewage disposal
systems are also overloaded and deteriorating. Not least, as
we saw during the 2000 election, our voting apparatus, the
system for registering and tabulating votes, the foundation
of our supposedly democratic system, needs a major overall.
(Have I left anything out?)
In sum, the public sector of this country is in a state of decay
and needs massive rebuilding and restructuring. Actually, the
term "public" is misleading. This infrastructure is essential to
the functioning of, and the ongoing accumulation of wealth
in, the private sector, particularly of the large corporations,
media enterprises and banks, and their wealthy executives
and stockholders, all of whom enjoyed such prosperity dur-
ing the 1990s. Yet, because these institutions are officially the
responsibility of government, they are deemed "public" and
the costs of maintaining these facilities, let alone rebuilding
and expanding them, are foisted on the taxpayers, particular-
ly middle- and lower-income families and individuals. One
way to understand the crisis of the public sector is to view at
least a part of the costs of the maintenance of this infra-
structure as a kind of "social wage," a piece of our salaries,
paid out collectively, that enables us to survive, raise 
families, get to work and back, and otherwise be productive
employees. Since what goes into salaries is a deduction from
profits, it is in the short- and medium-term interest of our
corporate leaders to keep their share of these expenditures as
small as possible and to transfer the cost elsewhere. At some
point, however, the chickens come home to roost: if wages
are too low, the workforce won't be reproduced with the 
requisite strength and skills to function effectively in 
the profit-producing process. And this is, in fact, what the
labor shortage in the high-tech sector represents.
A complementary way of analyzing the situation is to see a
portion of infrastructure costs as a part of the collective 
capital expenditure of private industry, much like factories,
machinery, office space, etc., but one which, because of its
designation as "public," they do not pay, or of which they do
not pay their appropriate share. Taking these two facets
together, we can see that the publicly-funded "public sector"
functions (and has functioned for decades), as a massive 
subsidy to private industry, leading to a gigantic, and in the
long-run, illusory, increase in corporate profits. By the same
token, the crisis of the public sector--its need to be repaired
and expanded and the amount of economic resources, i.e.,
capital, this will require--represents, in effect, a tremendous
debt currently being carried by our entire economic system.
The size of this debt is enormous. An inkling of it can be
gained by recognizing that, at least according to the figure
broached after the disputed election in November, 2000, it
will take $8 or 9 billion just to fix the voting system--the
polling booths and ballot boxes--throughout our fifty
states. If this is the amount needed to repair the voting
apparatus, how much will it take to rebuild the airports,
highways, railway system, bridges and tunnels, the power
infrastructure, the public medical system, the police
departments, etc., etc? Oh yes, and the school system. A
rough estimate for the latter can be gained from a statistic
released in 1995 by the Government Accounting Office: it
will take $112 billion just to repair the country's existing
schools (forget about building new ones!). In California
alone, combined new construction and modernization and

deferred maintenance costs will total over $29 billion just
for the years 2001-06 (California Dept. of Education Fact
Book 2002, Handbook of Education Information).
In fact, this debt, like the explicit public and private debt
load, is waiting to take its toll on all of us in one form or
another. It is already having its effect, mostly in the form of
bottlenecks and mini-crises in discrete sectors. That's what
the labor shortage of the late 1990s, and the "crisis" in public
education that it generated, was all about. If we look at the
state of our school system in this broader context, we will see
that it is a lot bigger than has been generally imagined, and
that fixing it will be no easy task. Let's look at it in a little
more detail.

Lack of Invesment
Perhaps the most obvious cause of the sorry state of our
public schools is that they have been starved of funds for
decades: there has been no serious investment in our school
system for 30 years. This has resulted in, among other things,
a deterioration of school facilities, severe overcrowding and a
national shortage of teachers.

Deteriorating Facilities
There has been no substantial construction of schools in
California since the 1960s. (An elementary school was recently
completely, to much fanfare, in Los Angeles' densely-populat-
ed San Fernando Valley, the first one since 1971.) Nationally,
the situation is similar: the average age of school buildings in
the United States is 42 years, with substantial deterioration
estimated to begin after 40. (Just like people!) In sum, the vast
majority of our schools are in disrepair, the facilities are inad-
equate and there are not enough of them, a problem made
worse, but not created, by massive immigration.
A hint of the physical quality of our schools can be gained
by looking at one inner-city school in a working-class, but
not desperately poor, neighborhood. The school where I
work, for example, has no gymnasium. Physical education,
when it occurs, takes place in our main yard, which is locat-

ed behind the main school building and parking lot. This
yard is legally too small for the number of children in our
school, now around 800. There is no baseball, football or
soccer field. There are no swings or slides. (We do have a
handball backboard, basketball hoops, tetherball apparatuses
and a volleyball net. We have also been promised new play-
ground equipment, the result of a private donation from
actor Kirk Douglas and his wife, but construction has yet to
be started.) There is no grass; the yard is paved with asphalt,
cracked and crumbling, and it is divided in two (one part for
grades one and two, another part for grades three, four and
five), by a wall and a fence. There is also a tiny yard for
kindergarteners in front of the school. The main yard may
have been big enough at one time (it may even have been
grassy), but as our enrollment increased, new bungalows,
separated from the main building, were built and the chil-
dren's play space successively encroached upon. Our school
has no cafeteria, in the sense of a room where the children
can eat in a closed, protected environment. There is a "cafe-
teria," meaning a kitchen in which food is prepared (mostly
heated up) and in which the cafeteria workers suffer on hot
days because there is no air conditioning. But the children
eat outside, in a part of the yard (now being expanded)
equipped with tables and benches and a roof, but not walls.
In other words, the children eat out in the weather. When it
is raining or too cold or too hot, the children eat breakfast in
the auditorium, on the chairs or on the floor, and lunch in
their classrooms. For its part, the auditorium is too small for
our school's student body to assemble. (In any case, the
entire student body is rarely on campus at one time. As a
result of our year-round, multi-track schedule, on any given
day, one quarter of the students are not in school; they are
"off track.") The bungalows are shoddily built. They also
appear to be nesting sights for large, cockroach-like insects
that can be occasionally discovered
running, procreating or dying on
the floors. Our school has no com-
puter lab (although there are now
computers in the classrooms), no
science lab, no music room; the
orchestra practices in the all-pur-
pose auditorium. Not least, our
nurse doesn't have an appropriate
office; her office space is really a
kind of lobby for two bathrooms. (It used to be the staff
lounge.) As deprived of facilities as it is, our school is by no
means the worst, or even bad, as far as LAUSD elementary
schools are concerned.

Overcrowding
The most significant problem resulting from the lack of
long-term investment in public education is overcrowding.
Put most simply, there are too many kids in each school
and too many kids in (most of ) the classrooms. When I
first started teaching in Los Angeles, class-size limits (the
upper limits) in elementary school was 33 students per
class in grades k through three, 34 per class in grades four,
five and six. In the middle and high schools, there were
(and still are), classes with 40-45 students. (An acquain-
tance of mine, a teacher at a middle school, recently told
me that there are classes in his school with 48 kids in
them.) How is any teacher going to reach all the students 
in his/her class, give each child individual attention, make
sure he/she is learning the required curriculum, etc., when
there are so many kids in the class? In reality, it isn't possi-
ble. Beginning in 1997, with the state flush with money, the
class-size for grades k through three was reduced to 20. In
my opinion, this has been the only truly substantial step
taken to improve the school system. (As a kindergarten
teacher, it seemed like I had a new job.) Yet, nothing has
been done about reducing class sizes in the rest of the
grades. (In LA, as I mentioned before, and perhaps else-
where, they have gone up). Why? There are not enough
teachers, classrooms or schools. If anything, the reduction
in class size for grades k through three made the existing
teacher shortage even worse. And in the years since the 

crisis in education was discovered, aside from the elementary
school in the Valley, there have been no new schools built.
Construction on a new high school--the new Belmont High
School complex--near downtown Los Angeles was halted
when it was discovered that the school site leaks toxic fumes.
So desperate is the district for schools and classrooms, even
sites to build new schools, that serious consideration is being
given to completing the project, despite the risk to the health
of its prospective students. The board of education recently
"awarded" a $2.9 million contract to fund (yet more) environ-
mental studies and engineering designs for the half-built proj-
ect. (Los Angeles Times, July 10, 2002.) When completed, it is
expected to cost $260 million, making it the most expensive
high school in California. (LA Times, June 20, 2002.) Progress
in building other schools has been minimal. A friend of mine
is an architect who has done work for LAUSD. He was con-
tracted to design and produce plans for new schools or school
expansions. When I spoke to him about this a year ago, he said
that very few of the projects are proceeding. He also told me
that the new crew brought in to oversee school construction,
presumably to replace those implicated in the Belmont scan-
dal, are even less competent than the old guys. According to
the LA Times (June 20, 2002), Superintendent Roy Romer
"disclosed last fall that the district faces a shortfall of as much
as $600 million for repairs that Proposition BB [a $2.4 billion
bond issue passed in 1997--RT] originally was supposed to
cover--the result of increasing costs, contractual disputes and
poor oversight." As a result, only half of the 12,000 repair and
modernization jobs planned under Proposition BB have been
completed and the district must find the money for the rest.
Supposedly, Proposition BB "launched several dozen new
schools," but what this actually means isn't clear. According to
recent reports, however, the situation has improved somewhat;
the district finally managed to submit its paperwork in time to
qualify for nearly $1 billion in state funds for school construc-
tion. And a new bond issue, this one for $3.3 billion, is
planned for the ballot, although, given LAUSD's past misman-
agement, this one faces considerable voter scepticism.

Year-Round Schools
Aside from busing (more than 17,000 kids are bused, often an
hour each way, to and from schools every day), one of the
negative effects of overcrowding is the existence of year-round
school schedules. Under traditional school calendars, roughly
September through June, school facilities lie vacant and
unused for over two months during the summer. Converting
to year-round, multi-track schedules allows this unutilized
space to be used and thus still more students crammed into
already overcrowded facilities. The general idea is that at any
given time, while one group of students, that is, one "track," is
on vacation ("off-track"), the other students (the other tracks,
say, three) are present ("on-track").
This set-up is deleterious for a number of reasons. One,
probably the least important, is that except for one or two
days per year (and sometimes not even that), the entire stu-
dent body is never on campus at one time. This has a nega-
tive impact on various extra-curricular activities, such as the
orchestra, as well as on the effort to generate what we used to
call "school spirit." (Since our school has few extra-curricular
activities and since the auditorium is too small to seat all of
our students, this doesn't account for much.)
A more significant drawback of year-round, multi-track
schedules is the existence of so-called "roving classes." These
are classes, that is, groups of school children, who have no
classroom of their own. To understand why this occurs, think
of a school that can normally house, say, 600 children with
each classroom full and no extra rooms. Now, with a year-
round schedule, at any given time, there are an additional 200
children who are not in school; they are "off-track." At the end
of a certain period (in our school, every six weeks), one group
of (200) kids currently in school goes "off-track," while the
group that has been "off-track" comes back to school. But
since all the rooms have been full, the group coming back "on-
track" must move into classrooms that were previous occupied
by the now departing students. Six weeks later, when an
another track goes off and one comes back on, these children
have to move again. These are the "roving" classes. During the
course of one semester, the kids in these classes are in three
different classrooms, and the process is repeated in the follow-
ing semester. Leaving aside the unsettling effect this has on the
students (never having one's own classroom), and leaving
aside the fact that having to move every few weeks dampens
the "roving" teachers' motivation to decorate their classrooms
with instructional material, students' work, etc., this "roving"
entails a colossal waste of instructional time. As the time
approaches for one track to go off, those classes whose rooms
will be utilized by "rovers" must be cleaned out to make room
for the incoming classes. Things must be taken down from the
walls, supplies stored, desks and table-tops cleared, and book-
shelves emptied or at least covered or turned around.
Students' personal supplies and belongings have to be stowed
away or taken home. Meanwhile, the roving classes must clean
up the rooms they have been in for the last few weeks, pack
their stuff into backpacks and plastic bags, etc., so they can be
prepared to move into their "new" classrooms when they are
vacated. How many days does this take? At the very least, one,
sometimes two or more, every six weeks, days that could be far
better spent actually learning something. And, of course, the
teachers have to put in extra time after class to get their rooms
in shape. But at least the kids (and the teachers) are gaining
valuable life experience: a real lesson in the economics of
scarcity (and the stupidity and irresponsibility of those who
run and have run the school system). But, as George W. says,
let's hold the schools accountable.
Another negative effect of overcrowding is the necessity 
of so-called "split" classes or grades. These are classes that
group children belonging to two or more grades in one
classroom, taught by one teacher (and usually a part-time
teacher assistant). For example, if by chance a school's
enrollment and distribution (how many kids are in each
grade and each track, etc.) don't enable all classes to be filled
to, or close to, the maximum, there isn't enough space and
aren't enough teachers to have classes that are, say, half full.
Let's say that in any given school with a given distribution 
of kids there's enough space for four kindergartens and four
first-grade classes. Let's also say that instead of the 80
kindergarteners and 80 first graders that would perfectly 
fill up these classes (at 20 children per class), 90 kids in each
grade enroll. This leaves 10 in each grade left over. Instead 
of having two additional classes, one kindergarten and one
first-grade class, with 10 kids in each, schools that are short
of space will put the 10 kindergarteners and 10 first graders
in the same class, to be taught by one teacher.
In a few cases, such a split-grade class may be beneficial, for
example, if some slower learners in, say, a fifth-grade class,
are put in a class with more advanced children in the fourth
grade. But the world (and, needless to say, the school system)

is rarely so logical and obliging. Usually, fast and slow learn-
ers are thrown in together, so some kids aren't given the
opportunity to progress as fast as they might, while others
fall further behind and do not get the individual attention
they need. This questionable situation is bad enough, but to
make matters worse, each grade has its own individual cur-
riculum in each subject area. So, in theory (in, say, a class
containing kids in two grades), one teacher is supposed to
teach two reading programs, two math programs, two scienc
programs and two social studies programs, not to mention
the mandated instruction in art, music, physical education
and, where students who are not deemed fluent in English
are involved, ESL (English as a Second Language). Here, stu-
dents are supposed to be further subdivided into groups
defined by their level of fluency in English, with a distinct
instructional program for each group.
How is all this to be done? Perhaps, the Albert Einsteins or
Leonardo Da Vincis of teaching can do it, but ordinary
human beings, even very talented and dedicated ones, can-
not, and as a result, it isn't done. You do the best you can,
which may not be very good, and you try not to let it both
er you too much. Where it's convenient, two teachers may
swap kids for, say, science or social studies, so that for one
hour, the fifth graders are being taught the fifth-grade sci-
ence curriculum by one teacher while the fourth-grade
kids are taught the fourth-grade science curriculum by the
other. But this is rarely possible for all subject areas, let
alone for all, or even most, teachers. And such an arrange-
ment, which is usually worked out informally between the
teachers in question, is further complicated by the fact tha
teachers and classes are on different tracks, so the whole
deal may have to be suspended, if the two classes are on
different tracks, when one or the other teacher and his/her
class goes off-track. Leaving aside the amount of time lost
every day moving the kids.
As bad as this is, in LA, up until the last year, there were
three distinct year-round schedules plus a traditional
September through June schedule, plus another one that is
almost the same as the traditional calendar. As a result,
kids from the same family may be in different schools, say,
one in elementary school and one in middle or high
school, which may be on different schedules, so that there
is no one time when the family can take a vacation togeth-
er (except Christmas). Unless they forgo vacations alto-
gether while their kids are in school, the family will take a
vacation at some time or another, forcing one or both chil-
dren to miss a lot of school time. In addition, if a child
switches tracks, he/she may wind up ending one school
year and beginning another with no vacation whatsoever
(except perhaps a weekend), or she/he may wind up hav-
ing a vacation of 12 weeks (Great! But plenty of time to
forget a lot of stuff ).
At least the children on our school's calendar are in class for
the state's mandatory 180 days per year. Schools on two of
the other calendars, with nearly half of the district's 736,000
students (LA Times, June 20,2002 ), are/were not; they have
17 fewer days, with each day somewhat longer to make up
for the time. (As I understand it, one of these calendars was
phased out last year.) Several months ago, the state began
insisting that all children be in school the mandatory 180
days, and the district started twisting and turning to figure
out how to do this. Some of their proposals involve having
schools have two "shifts" per day, one in the morning, one
in the afternoon. Since the school day is six hours, there
will have to be some overlap. But the kids won't all fit.
Another proposal is for some children to go to school on
Saturday. (Another gem.) Since this issue was first
broached, I haven't heard anything official about it. I've
been told, however, that the one remaining
"short" calendar will be terminated at the
end of this school year in June 2003.


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