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

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Fri, 7 Feb 2003 03:32:07 -0500 (EST)

      A - I N F O S  N E W S  S E R V I C E

Swim or Sink
This was my own experience, which may be instructive here.
Prior to teaching I was working in the film and television
industry as a freelance script reader or, as officially titled, a
"story analyst." I read screenplays, books and other materials
for movie directors, producers and other people in the busi-
ness. Like most freelance jobs, my career had a "boom or
bust" cycle. There were times when it seemed that everyone 
I had ever worked for each wanted me to read ten screenplays
and four books and to send them my "coverage" (essentially,
written synopses and evaluations of the material I had read)
within two days. There were other times when weeks would
go by when I got no work at all, not even a phone call from
my "employers" asking how I was doing. (Producers and
directors are always so busy.) On the whole, though, I wasn't
making a living. At my best, I was barely paying my bills; at
worst, I was running down my savings. (An old car I was con-
tinually throwing money into didn't help.)
After three years of this, I came to the conclusion that I was
not likely to land a full-time salaried job as a script reader
anywhere (there are a few such positions, mostly at the major
studios, and they are very difficult to get), or otherwise move
ahead in the entertainment business. I also concluded that
since I was well into middle age, I needed to think seriously
about putting money away for retirement. After answering
various job ads, and realizing I wasn't qualified for a job in
the modern world, I decided to become (you guessed it) a
teacher. Fortunately, I did have a BA. Moreover, when I first
arrived in California I had, on the advice of a friend who was
a high school teacher (when she suggested that I consider
teaching as a career, I just laughed), taken and passed the
CBEST as a kind of safety net (which I now needed). I had
an additional asset. I have a modest grasp of Spanish and
managed to pass the district's Spanish fluency exam, earning
its top grade. Since at that time the schools were still com-
mitted to bilingual education and since, obviously, one of the
main languages of the bilingual program in LA was Spanish,
this made me a relatively hot item.
I first applied to be a high school social studies teacher, but
when I visited Cal State LA (the California State University at
Los Angeles), to look into enrolling in the appropriate teacher
training program, I was effectively rebuffed. At the administra-
tion building, I was told I needed to speak to both the chair-
man of the history department and the chairman of the edu-
cation department. Fortunately, the latter was on campus.
Among other things, he told me that I needed to take course 
X in one department and course Y in anoth-
er, but that I had to take one before the
other. (I don't remember what these courses
were about, their numbers or which one I
needed to complete before taking the other.)
Although the chairman of the history
department was not on campus and was not
scheduled to return for several weeks (this
was in December), I did manage to reach
him by phone. He was extremely impressed
with the schools I had attended, but when I
asked him about course X and Y, he told me
the exact opposite of what the chairman of
the education department had said. When I
returned to the administration building and
asked them for clarification, I was thor-
oughly beaten. Aside from being lethargic   
and bored, they were unable to help me out.
Along with the general state of the campus
(clean it was not) and the overall atmosphere of the place,
I was demoralized by the thought of having to negotiate the
institution for however many years it would take to get a cre-
dential. I returned to the district's recruitment office and asked
to apply to teach elementary school, for which, I had been
told, the district offered an intern program. In this program
(which I will discuss in more detail in the next installment of
this essay), one could take the requisite courses gratis, and
without having to a navigate a university bureaucracy, while
teaching at an elementary school.
After getting processed a second time, I was given a list of
district elementary schools, with addresses and telephone
numbers, and a map, and was told I had to find a job myself.
I decided to start with schools near my house, made an
appointment and got an interview. The principal at the
school there was nasty. When she asked why I had decided to
become a teacher and I replied that I needed a job (and also
that I liked kids and thought I'd be able to do a good job),
she snorted, "So, you think teaching is easy, don't you?" I
replied as politely as I could that I knew it wasn't (that's one
of the reasons I had never wanted to be a teacher). She then
told me that there was a Spanish-speaking teaching assistant
at the school whom they were coaching to be able to pass the
CBEST, but that if she didn't, they would call me. I left the
interview with a sigh of relief, happy that I had been rejected.
(I needed a job, but not that badly.)
When I called the next school, the principal was at least
polite. She told me that they were not offering any full-time
positions, only week-by-week substitute slots, but if I were
willing to take such a job, they'd try me out. At my interview
there, with the principal, the school's coordinator and some
other people present, I was asked how I would organize a
language arts program and instructional programs in other
subject areas. Of course, I didn't have a clue and mostly
hemmed and hawed, but since, as I later found out, they were
desperate to fill two positions (it was several days before the
Christmas break and they needed people to start right after
New Year), I got the job. I agreed to take a combined fifth-
sixth grade class (I was shocked they had such things), and,
at the principal's suggestion, I sat in on the classes of three
upper-grade teachers (they didn't appreciate my presence in
their classrooms) to see how things worked. I was also given
the Course of Study--a humongous loose-leaf binder of sev-
eral hundred pages, containing a detailed description of the
required curricula for each subject area for each grade--and
urged to study it before school started up again in January.
Frankly, I couldn't make head or tail of it; it had so much
stuff in it you couldn't possibly cover all the material in the
time available and there was no way to know what was essen-
tial and what was not or how much of the material one could
feasibly cover.
During the Christmas vacation, I spoke to several of my
teacher friends and asked their advice. All I remember was
them warning me that if I had trouble handling the kids or
needed some other kind of help I should definitely NOT go
to the principal. They have too many other things to do, they
told me, and don't want to be bothered with helping new
teachers (!?). If I wanted to keep the job, I needed to figure
things out for myself or speak to another teacher.

Improvising on the Job
When I arrived at school on the first day of classes after the
break, I was told where to pick up my class, got the kids, and
walked them to classroom. After they put their stuff away
and took their seats, I introduced myself and took atten-
dance. Now what? I didn't have any idea what to do and
nobody at the school had told me or even made any sugges-
tions. Since I supposed that all kids like to write (and I knew
that trying to get pre-teens to do something they don`t want
to do is a lost cause), I asked my students, "Who wants to
write a story?" Hands shot up. Heaving a sigh of release, I
told my students to take out a pencil and piece of paper and
start writing. One boy raised his hand and asked, "Can we
work with friends?" A light went on in my head (I had heard
that "cooperative learning" was in favor), and I said, "OK,
pick a partner," and the kids started working...reasonably
quietly. A bit later, the assistant principal came in and looked
around the room; she wasn't smiling. The kids were working,
but there was some talking (they were discussing their sto-
ries), and I didn't know whether that was acceptable or not.
The assistant principal then asked me, "What are they
doing?" I answered, "They're writing stories." The woman
then left without saying anything further. Of course, I was
very worried, but as I was to discover later, this was a signifi-
cant improvement over the previous teacher.
The class consisted of 34 kids, equally divided between fifth
and sixth graders. Their ages were roughly 10-11, but some
of them, particularly the sixth grade girls, were emotionally
going on 16. All but one had Spanish last names (what the
one Anglo kid was doing in the class, supposedly a bilingual
one, I never did figure out), and most of them, but not all,
spoke or understood Spanish. (One boy had a Spanish sur-
name--I presume his natural father was Latino--but he had
been raised by Anglo parents--an alcoholic and a coke
addict--and only spoke and understood English.)
The kids seemed to enjoy writing their stories (most of them
were about serial killers until, after several weeks, I put my
foot down and insisted they write about something else), and
reading them to the rest of the class. After a week or so, it
rained heavily one day, so during recess time, I had the kids
play inside, while I took the opportunity to read with each
one individually, using basal readers, books whose story con-
tent and vocabulary are geared to each grade. I was shocked
to find out how poor their reading skills were. Fully one
third of the class was reading on the second grade level.
Others were reading on the third and fourth grade level,
while just a few were reading "at grade level," the level at
which they are expected to be able to read. Math was the
same. One third of the class did not have a solid grasp of the
basic multiplication and division facts and most of the stu-
dents' ability to do word problems was next to nil. They also
couldn't do long division because they couldn't keep the
columns straight. As a result, I decided I would work on their
basic skills and worry about other things later. My language
arts program consisted essentially of running a writers'
workshop; the kids wrote stories, read them to the class who
then discussed them. We talked about characters and plots, at
least so they'd know the terms. A couple of times a week, I
had the slower readers read aloud to me around a table at the
back of the class, while the others read on their own and
wrote synopses of what they had read. (When I first started
doing this, some of the better readers snickered. I told every-
one to stop everything and asked "Which one of you is per-
fect?" When no hands went up, I gave them a short lecture
about people being good in some things and not so good in
others, etc., and told them that I wouldn't tolerate any snob-
bery. There was no more snickering after that.)
For math, I worked through the grade level math book.
For practice, I divided the class into teams and had a math
contest: I'd write a problem on the board and the teams
would compete to see who came up with the right answer
first. They seemed to like that. Occasionally, we studied sci-
ence using the grade level science book. For social studies,
I first tried to use the current, mandated and very "politi-
cally correct" textbook. It looked good, with a lot of pic-
tures and maps, but it was so wordy and used such high
flown language that most of the kids couldn't get through
it. Instead, we used the old, outdated text; at least the kids
could read it. As the time to take the yearly achievement
tests approach, the class and I went through a booklet
designed to prepare students for the test. Mind you,
through all this time, I had no idea whether I was covering
the required curriculum, nor did I really care. My students
obviously needed help with the basics, and I was deter-
mined to focus on this regardless of what anyone would
say. In any event, not one person from the administration
ever gave me any direction about what I should be doing,
although they did come in occasionally to check how
things were going, mostly, I presume, to see whether I was
managing the kids.
II myself wondered whether I was doing any good, when two
things happened. The first was that, after taking their annual
achievement tests (I don't remember which ones they were),
my students' scores in reading had gone up noticeably. I
don't know whether this had anything to do with me, but
when the assistant principal praised me for it, I was willing
to take the credit. More important, three of the fifth-grade
girls had written a wonderful story about a girl their age
whose parents were getting divorced. I naturally assumed
that they were writing from experience and asked if any of
their parents had been divorced or were now getting
divorced. They answered no, they had just made it up. I was
very impressed, but most of the kids kept writing about peo-
ple being murdered.
I didn't realize it then, but I later found out that what I was
doing was significantly better than the previous teacher.
Although she was fully trained, and a big fan of the newest
methods then being touted, she was young, inexperienced
and couldn't control the class. She also played favorites and
screamed a lot. When I asked other teachers and adminis-
trators about her, they either spoke very highly of her,
praising her use of the most up-to-date teaching methods
(mine were anything but), or else described her as horrible.
The assistant principal, who had so intimidated me the first
time I saw her but who eventually came to respect me (at
least I controlled the class), just rolled her eyes. I got the
impression that the kids had run the teacher off, that is,
made her life so miserable that she left in despair. Her
training may have qualified her to teach middle-class kids,
but she was clearly out of her league with the group she
wound up with.

Behavior Management
I screamed, too, but after a while the kids seemed to respond
to me and appeared to be learning something. Most of them.
There were several kids whose sole purpose in life seemed to
be to come to school to piss me off (or any other teacher
they had; it wasn't personal). Usually it was talking out of
turn, interrupting me or other students, or failing to line up
properly--pushing, shoving, talking and occasionally, hitting
and cursing (those were the only times I sent kids to the
office). There were days when I had half the class (usually,
the boys), eating lunch in the classroom and not allowed to
play. (I told them that I was paid for the whole day, that 
I didn't eat lunch, and that it was all the same to me whether 
I was in the class with them or sitting in the staff lounge.
One boy actually begged to be allowed to stay in at lunch,
even though he was behaving well enough to eat and play
outside with the other kids. He wanted to use the computer,
which, because he never finished his work on time, he never
got to use.) Although one teacher suggested I use more posi-
tive reinforcement, I couldn't quite figure out what kind of
rewards would work. Eventually, the kids themselves came to
my rescue. Up until then, we had been taking PE (Physical
Education) at the end of the day, when our class was official-
ly scheduled. (It had taken over a week to get even this start-
ed, because nobody had told me I needed to have PE instruc-
tion until one of the boys asked, "When are we going to have
PE?" Of course, that was their favorite subject.) After several
weeks of this, another boy asked if we could take PE earlier,
before lunch. Once I discerned that there was room on the
yard at an appropriate time, I agreed, but only on condition
that they do a good job (that is, behave reasonably well),
during the rest of the day. Wonder of wonders, it worked,
although I have to admit that the last part of the day, after
lunch, with an hour and 20 minutes left before they went
home, was usually a lost cause. At one point, when I had the
kids lined up in the hall to go outside, I ducked inside to get
a ball, leaving the kids unsupervised for a couple of seconds.
Just then, the principal came in. Although she politely repri-
manded me for leaving the kids unattended, she also said
that I had created a "major miracle," referring to the kids.
They were lined up like soldiers.
As the due date for report cards came, I was informed by 
the teacher in the next classroom that I was required to send
home "unsatisfactory notices" to those parents whose kids
were going to get less than satisfactory grades on their report
cards (say, Ds and Fs). Since fully a third of the kids were
reading on the second grade level, I sent home a lot of these
notices, which include requests that the parents come in for
conferences with the teacher. To my surprise, most of the
parents showed up and, even more to my surprise, they
seemed to like me. They had noticed, they told me, that the
kids were excited about school (I think they were calling each
other up to talk over their stories about serial killers), and
assured me that I was doing a good job. I recently ran into
the mother of one of the boys I had that semester. He was in
college somewhere and doing well, and they both remember,
she insisted, what a great teacher I was.
There was one woman, however, who stormed into the class-
room and started cursing me out. She was white and rather
well-dressed, as if she had come from an office job. She was
the mother of the one Anglo kid in the class, whose reading
skills were very poor and who seemed, overall, to be very
demoralized about school and his life in general; nobody
wanted to write stories with him and his efforts usually
amounted to about three or four feebly scribbled lines. When 
I assured her that I was new at the school and was only trying
to help her son, she apologized and then began a tirade against
the principal and the entire school. She knew her kid was way
behind, but why was she always being told that he didn't quali-
fy for any special help; he wasn't learning-disabled and there
was no after school tutorial program. She couldn't believe that
her son was the only kid in the school like this and that noth-
ing was being done to help them. She hated the previous
teacher. When she had calmed down, she pleaded with me:
would I agree to tutor her son on a private basis? After demur-
ring (I was already exhausted and didn't want to tie up any
time over the weekend), I agreed to tutor her boy at their
home for an hour every Saturday.

Overlooking the Basics
What I learned from this was instructive. To find out more
about the boy's reading skills (one doesn't get much of a
chance to work one-on-one with 34 kids in a class), I had him
pick out one of his books and read it to me. He read a few
words until he came to one he didn't know. He then just took
a wild guess, usually coming up with a word that started with
the same letter as the one he saw on the page but no others.
He made no attempt to sound out the whole word, letter by
letter. I showed him how to do this, explaining, however, that
in English the letters do not always sound the same, and had
him try it a few times. If he got the word, we went on, but if
he didn't, I eventually told him the word and then had him
proceed with his reading. We did this every Saturday morning
for about an hour and a half, and eventually, his reading began
to improve. What I realized from this was: (1) nobody had
specifically taught the kids how to sound out words; and (2)
mostly what the poorer readers needed was a lot more practice
reading. As I was to find out later on in my teaching career,
with all the emphasis placed on the latest, supposedly scientifi-
cally-demonstrated methods of teaching reading, the basics
were being overlooked. As a result, a lot of kids were either 
not learning to read well or were not learning to read at all.
I also learned something about the boy and his mother's situa-
tion. From what his mother told me, she and her husband had
been high livers who had gotten into a car accident while high
on an illicit substance; someone was either seriously hurt or
killed. As punishment, her driver's license had been revoked
and she lost custody of her boy. He wound up living with his
grandparents, while his mother and father had gotten
divorced. After she had stayed clean for several years, her son
was allowed to live with her, although she still was not allowed
to drive. They lived in a very small but immaculate apartment
over a garage behind a house, from which vantage point, she
told me, she could see one of the neighbors dealing drugs.
Although the boy was now living with his mom, he apparently
had found the entire experience very demoralizing and had
fallen behind in school. After the boy graduated, I occasionally
ran into his mother in the local shopping mall. She thanked
me for what I had done for her son and assured me that he
was doing a lot better. "You're a good guy, Mr. Tabor," she said.
Even after I got the class somewhat under control, two boys,
sixth-graders, continued to give me trouble. One of them,
the leader of the two, had extremely poor reading and writ-
ing skills. He could barely read the second-grade reader, and
as far as his writing was concerned, I couldn't figure out
what he was trying to say. I later found out his story. He had
not yet learned to read well when, in the first or second
grade, he and his family had moved back to Mexico. There,
he attended school but fell further behind because his read-
ing skills in Spanish were worse than those in English. After
several years, they returned to United States, where his edu-
cation (if it can be called that), continued. Academically a
disaster, he had real leadership skills, and his chief pleasure
in life was organizing mayhem in the class.
His sidekick was only a touch more academically proficient
than he was. This boy's father, I was told by the woman in
charge of the lunch tickets at our school who knew many of
the families in the community, was an alcoholic who regular-
ly beat the boy. Apparently, the kid needed a father-figure
and went along with whatever his pal cooked up. When they
got too out of hand, I sent them to another classroom, whose
teacher had agreed to provide this service for me.
I eventually got them under control, although they were
never angels. The breakthrough came from an opportunity
they themselves offered to me. We were out doing PE (either
playing kickball or running relay races), when one of the
boys, the leader, challenged me to a race. I laughed and
replied "You want to race me?" But inside I wasn't so cocky.
Since it had been some time since I had sprinted (in addi-
tion, I was in my late forties), I suggested we race at the end
of the week. I went home and did a few squats with my bar-
bell and practiced a few starts outside. When it came time to
race, I suggested we run to the fence dividing the primary
yard from the upper-grade yard and back, a total distance of
about 150 yards: in case I fell behind at the start, I wanted to
have space to catch up. As it turned out, this wasn't neces-
sary. I was ahead after 10 yards and ran the rest of the dis-
tance looking over my shoulder and laughing at them. They
were a lot better behaved after that.
LA School Supt. Roy Romer (Slobodan Dimitrov/LA Weekly)
have a serious run-in with one of the boys, the follower of
the two, also during PE. We were choosing sides for a kick-
ball game and the boy refused to be on the same team as one
of the less popular girls in the class. Although she was sweet,
she was not very attractive or academically capable. What
really did her in was the discovery one day by the nurse of
lice "nits" in her hair. (This occasionally happens at our
school.) So, when it looked like this boy was going to wind
up on the same team as the poor girl, he refused. I told him
either to be on the team or to sit down and not play at all.
He said "no," directly defying me in front of the other kids,
and started crying. I told him again to join his team or sit
down (I wasn't going to put him on the other team); if he
didn't, I was going to send him to the principal's office. He
again refused and off he went. (I very rarely sent a kid to the
office, since it usually didn't do any good, but did piss off the
kid's parents, who were often obligated to come to school for
a conference.) At the end of the day, I saw the boy in the
school yard as I left the school, certain he hated my guts.
He waved and called out cheerfully, "Hi, Mr. Tabor. Bye,
Mr. Tabor." For needy kids, I guess some kind of attention is
better than none at all (certainly better than a beating).
Several years later, I saw this boy doing gardening work in an
upscale house in a nearby neighborhood, obviously working
in his father's business. He was very friendly. The other boy,
the one with leadership skills, wound up being the leader of a
local gang and had gotten shot in the hand. A real shame.
He was a very bright kid whose life circumstances, particu-
larly, his education, didn't point to much of a future.
I realized that the kids liked me (this was, and still is,
important to me) when, by a bureaucratic mix-up, I almost
lost the job. After working as a week-by-week sub, I had
been offered a contract by the school. This meant being
processed again, which in turn required me to submit my
college transcripts (again) to the district. Although one
school, which I attended for two years, sends official tran-
scripts directly to former students, the other will only send
official transcripts directly to the institution that needs to
see them, in my case the LAUSD. Without going into
details, my transcripts had gotten lost in the mail and
someone downtown at LAUSD headquarters had decided to
replace me with another teacher, rather than wait until the
mess was straightened out. My soon-to-be former students
were very upset; they bought me gifts and cried. On the day
the new teacher was to start, my principal (I will be eternal-
ly grateful to her for this), advised me to show up for work
anyway. "You never know what will happen," she said. Sure
enough, it rained heavily that day and my intended replace-
ment never showed up. In the meantime, the head of the
official region our school was located in (we now have sub
districts, after a stint with "clusters"), returned from 
vacation and, irate at district headquarters for going behin
her back, insisted I be hired as the regular teacher. The nex
day, the crisis over, the kids were back to their usual antics.
I did managed to survive the semester without too many
mishaps. At graduation, the kids were happy and the parents
told me how pleased they were at their children's progress.
One couple even thanked me for giving their kids (there 
were two of them, a girl in the fifth grade and a boy in the
sixth), Fs on their report cards. They were having trouble
motivating them and hoped this might help. (Back in the
days of "social promotion," when every student was passed
on to the next grade whether or not he/she had mastered th
curriculum, giving Fs wasn't considered acceptable, presum-
ably because this might hurt the child's self-esteem.) The
assistant principal, who wasn't a fan of the new methods or
the indulgent platitudes that went with them, even compli-
mented me on my courage. Who needed courage? The 
parents wanted their kids to be educated and were glad 
somebody seemed concerned enough to try to help them.

Teacher Shortage Remains
My main point in relating these stories is to illustrate the reali-
ty of a school system operating under the burden of a chronic
shortage of teachers. Large numbers of children spend years
with teachers who are inexperienced, incompetent and in
some cases downright unfit for the job. Even when the 
individual is committed to being a teacher and has the raw
abilities to do a good job, his/her inexperience takes its toll on
the kids; they suffer inferior instruction while the teacher is
learning the ropes. Although it is easy and convenient to
blame the teachers, the culpability lies elsewhere: with the
overall conditions in the school system and with those, the
bureaucrats, politicians and corporate leaders, taken collective-
ly, who are responsible for this mess. It is also easy (and 
convenient) to forget the large numbers of capable-to-highly
gifted teachers and administrators who are killing themselves
to make the system work, in spite of the obstacles they face,
including the "leadership" they are obligated to follow.
There is an additional effect of the teacher shortage that in a
way sums up everything I`ve tried to portray here. This is the
fact that as long as there is such a shortage, there is no incen-
tive to get rid of poor teachers. (I am not now talking about
teachers who are still gaining experience. I am referring to
those who, despite years of working in the schools, do not
know how to manage and/or teach the kids very well.)
Admittedly, once a teacher has a regular teaching credential
and has passed probation, it is very difficult to fire him/her.
Yet, the bigger problem is that as long as there is a significant
shortage of teachers, there is very little reason to do so. If a
teacher can hold down a class with some semblance of order
and prevent the kids from killing each other, it is better to
have that person in the classroom, even if he/she is not
teaching the kids very much. Why? Because even if (speaking
from the administrators' point of view), you get rid of the
individual, you have no reason to expect that the person you
get to take his/her place will be any better. In fact, you have
no reason to believe that you will be able to get anybody at
all. If so, you might get saddled with a class that has no regu-
lar teacher. You will then try to arrange for a long-term sub-
stitute to take the spot, but you might not get one of those
either. Instead, you may have to call in for a sub every day
and hope that one gets out to your school. And if not, you
will have to split up the class each day, sending some kids to
one room, others to another, hoping that the teachers of
those classes can come up with work for them to do. In
short, if you do get rid of a poor teacher, you may wind up
with a bigger headache.
The problem of the teacher shortage may be coming to a cri-
sis in the state. According to an article in the August 6 LA
Times, the U.S. Department of Education is accusing
California of "skirting" the country's new education law. The
so-called "No Child Left Behind" law, passed in 2001,
requires teachers in every state to be "highly qualified," that
is, fully credentialed, by the end of the 2005-06 school year.
Teachers hired this year for schools in low-income neighbor-
hoods must already be so designated. California, however, is
defining "highly qualified" in such a way as to include
teacher interns and those with emergency credentials. Yet, "if
California follows the letter of the federal law, schools in
low-income communities will be unable to hire enough
teachers this fall, state officials said. That could push some
class sizes up to 50, 60 or more students, they said." Since
that article appeared, the issue seems to have dropped out of
sight. Perhaps the state and the federal government are work-
ing out a deal. Whatever happens, it will not solve the issue
of the lack of teachers, a problem for which our country's
political and economic elite, past and present, should be held
Despite the overall crisis, the situation at our school with
respect to overcrowding and the shortage of teachers has
improved somewhat in the past couple of years. There is
now less turnover of teachers and fewer inexperienced and
incompetent ones. I attribute this to several factors. One is
that our overall enrollment has declined. The neighbor-
hoods that our school serves have seen a substantial 
run-up in rents, so that many of our poorer residents have
had to move. Many landlords have also evicted their 
so-called Section 8 tenants (those who get rent subsidies),
further exacerbating the situation. With fewer kids 
attending the school, teachers who have left have not 
needed to be replaced. (There have also been fewer roving
classes.) An additional factor has been that fact that 
teachers won a substantial salary increase, which, in the
context of the collapse of the hi-tech boom of a few years
ago, has made teaching more attractive. As I understand it,
teacher turnover throughout the district has declined
somewhat, but the overall teacher shortage, along with its
negative consequences, remains.
In addition, while new teachers are still expected to swim or
sink, that is, to survive their first few years with little or no
outside help, they no longer have to invent their own cur-
riculum. In contrast to a few years ago, all teachers are now
required to follow highly structured, extremely detailed (the
technical term is "scripted," meaning the teachers are sup-
posed to read from the teacher's manual) programs in read-
ing and math, whether or not these programs are designed
and appropriate for the particular types of students each
individual teacher is trying to teach. While this may be better
than nothing, it is a typical example of the way the district
and the educational bureaucracy as a whole deals with these
issues, swinging from extreme to extreme, without finding
and stopping at some reasonable point in between (indeed,
without realizing that such a happy medium even exists).
The new approach flows from and reflects the current (but
not publicly articulated) belief among our educational lead-
ers that the problem with the system is the teachers. Hence
the desire to come up with "teacher-proof " programs. The
ideal is now the so-called "corporate" (or, as I prefer to call 
it, military) model of the schools: every teacher in the same
grade doing the same lesson the same way on the same day
throughout the district. (What a vision!)

Progress in the LAUSD?
Despite the fact that conditions in the school system remain
atrocious, Superintendent Roy Romer (former governor of
Colorado and member of the Democratic National
Committee), the LAUSD and the members of the Board of
Education are bragging about their achievements. The chief
evidence they cite is the rise of school children's scores on
the mandated state tests for four years in a row. If newspaper
accounts accurately reflect our educational leaders' claims,
they are attributing this improvement primarily to the man-
dated reading and math programs and the corresponding
teacher training they have implemented. Significantly absent
from their analysis are two factors that I believe are much
more important. The first is the reduction in class size (from
33 to 20) for grades k through 3. Interestingly, the rise in test
scores tends to fall off after the fourth grade, while scores for
middle and high school students have seen little increase or
have remained flat. (Superintendent Romer insists that scores
for middle and high school kids will go up as the kids now in
elementary school reach those schools. Permit me to remain
skeptical.) An additional factor behind the rise in test scores
is the substantial salary increase won by the teachers which,
as I've mentioned, in the context of the economic recession,
has tended to stabilize the workforce.
There are other factors worth mentioning to explain the rise
in test scores.
(1) Teachers are "teaching to the test," that is, orienting their
instruction to the kinds of questions and skills that they
know, from previous tests, will be on the exams. I don't criti-
cize this; while kindergarten students don't take state-man-
dated examinations (maybe they will in the future), I am
required to give certain tests to my students, and I do my
best to prepare them. If "they" (our bosses) want test scores
to go up, let's get them to go up; besides some of the tested
skills are legitimate.
(2) Teachers, certainly in kindergarten and first grade, are
focusing on reading and math and downplaying or ignoring
other subjects, such as science and social studies, let alone
art, music and physical education. Speaking personally, I am
doing a lot less art than I used to.
(3) Teachers are also pushing their kids harder, whether or not
this is emotionally or developmentally in their best interests.
(4) In addition, students' test taking skills are improving.
This makes a big difference, since some of the kids have little
or no idea how to perform well on exams. As one who has
administered quite a few of these tests, I can vouch for this.
Among other things, some kids don't budget their time well
and never finish sections of the test, while those kids who
finish a portion early rarely go back to review their answers.
("You have ten minutes left, perhaps you might want to go
back and review some of the problems." "Nope." "Are you
sure all of your answers are correct?" "Yep.") 
(5) There has also been an end to the policy of social promo-
tion. Up until recently, kids who were not performing "at
grade level" or anywhere near it were promoted to the next
grade. Leaving a child back, that is, "retaining" him/her, was
deemed harmful to the child's self-esteem, so that whatever
might be gained by repeating a year would supposedly be lost
because of its negative emotional impact on the kid. I per-
sonally pleaded with my principal more than a few times to
have some of my kindergarteners repeat the year because
they were woefully unprepared--academically, emotionally
and developmentally--for first grade. I've had children arrive
in my class, fresh from Mexico or Central America, with no
English and no prior school experience, in March (my track's
school year ends in mid-May), and watch, helplessly, as they
were promoted to first grade. Much more often than not, our
principal refused my request: "There's more instructional
time in first grade" (kindergarteners come for half a day), she
insisted. Although I've personally heard first grade teachers
say that it's not their job to teach the ABC's and I've even
mentioned this to the principal, my appeals were usually in
vain. This has now changed: retention is now "in," although
here, too, the new policy is limited because of lack of space.
The principal is a convert to the new policy. She recently told
me that some schools who have seen their API (Academic
Performance Index, a school-wide average of test scores
weighted, supposedly, to take the socio-economic level of the
school's student into consideration), go up substantially have
achieved this through a militant policy of retention: any
child not meeting all of the appropriate "benchmarks" is now
automatically retained. The district even set up special class-
es, with 10 children in each class, for those kids required to
repeat the second grade. Typically, due to the budget cuts, the
past year the size of these classes was raised to 20.
Further undermining our leaders' contention that the 
scripted programs and teacher training are the main factors
behind the rise in test scores is the fact that scores were going
up even before the programs and training were implement-
ed. Equally significant, they don't attempt to explain why 
test scores were so low before. Aside from the factors I've 
discussed, some of the problem may have resulted from the
previous round of bureaucratic fads, including a poorly
designed and even more poorly implemented stab at 
bilingual education and the attempt to mandate the use of
"whole language" reading methods. (Whatever the merits 
of the original theory, by the time "whole language" got
through the bureaucracy and hit the classroom, what it came
down to was: "Don't teach the kids the ABCs.") 
Given all this (and leaving aside whether test scores measure
much beyond the ability to take tests), I'm not sure there's 
as much to gloat about as our leaders think. Moreover, they
may be undermining the very achievements they are brag-
ging about. As I mentioned above, teaching assistants have
been let go, class sizes have been increased, including in
remedial classes, and essential services, have been cut, all
because of the economic crisis, the state budget deficit and
resultant budget cuts. One wonders, given our educational
leaders' failure to mention the class-size reduction and
increase in teacher salaries as factors behind the rise in test
scores, whether they aren't planning to raise the class size in
k through 3 and reduce teachers' salaries. The threat to cut
our health benefits, now in abeyance for one year, points to
such a strategy.
Yet, while all this is happening, our leaders continue to set 
an example of intelligence, dedication and willingness to 
sacrifice for the common cause. While schools are suffering
from budget cuts, Superintendent Romer and all the mem-
bers of the board of education are each having new, private
bathrooms built for them in the new LAUSD headquarters,
which itself cost $74.5 million to purchase and is estimated
to require an additional $60 million to renovate (LA Times,
September 26, 2001), at the tune of $80,000 apiece! Leaving
aside the waste of money, what kind of example does this set
for teachers, students, parents and everybody else working in
or having anything to do with the school system, let alone
struggling to make ends meet in a questionable economic 
climate? Are they corrupt, stupid, or some combination of
the two? All I can say is, whatever it is that they're going to
be doing in those bathrooms, I sure hope they enjoy it.

What I have tried to do in my modest essay is discuss the 
fact that the public education system, particularly in the
large urban areas, has suffered from years of underfunding
and neglect and to show concretely how this affects the
education of the children. Of course, there are other prob-
lems afflicting our schools. As I've suggested, one of these
is the role of the educational bureaucracy and the other
members of the "educational establishment" that manages
and purports to lead public education. This, along with the
related issues of curriculum and teacher training, will be
discussed in the next installment of this essay.

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