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(en) The Utopian #3 - My Life as a Dog, I Mean a Teacher, An Essay with Anecdotes By RON TABOR II. (2/3)

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Fri, 7 Feb 2003 03:32:17 -0500 (EST)

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

Classes Too Big
The other side of overcrowding is class
sizes that, with the recent exception of
kindergarten through third grade, are way
too high. Try to imagine attempting to
teach a full curriculum of subjects to a
class of forty-odd kids with a fairly wide
range of academic abilities. Just the job of
managing the class, aka preventing chaos,
is daunting enough, let alone actually
teaching something, let alone actually mak-
ing sure that each child pays attention,
does his/her class- and homework, etc., let
alone actually attempting to meet each
child's individual needs and challenge
his/her unique abilities. (Sure!) When I was
a kid I was once in a class with 45 kids. It
was the third grade and it wasn't a thrilling experience.
The teacher was unbelievably strict. We were so scared of
her we didn't move. We sat there with our hands "folded"
on our desks, even though as she went around the room,
having each child answer a question, it seemed an hour
before she got back to you. Fortunately, it was only for a
few weeks, until the new addition to the school was com-
pleted and our class was split into two smaller groups. At
the time, we hated the teacher. I now realize that she was
not exceptional, just doing her job as best she could under
terrible circumstances. Today the job is even harder, since
with American culture being what it is, it is almost impos-
sible to maintain that kind of control.
In my opinion (and I think most teachers will agree), one of
the most important things to be done to improve the school
system is to lower class sizes to a manageable level across
the board, that is, through all grades, not just k through
three. To outsiders, this might seem logical, even obvious.
Fewer students per classroom means more individual atten-
tion given to each student, while teachers, with fewer stu-
dents to prepare for and manage, are less stressed-out, and
therefore happier and healthier. (Less yelling means more
learning.) Leaving aside the fact that the shortage of space
and teachers makes this difficult to achieve in the short run,
many of our educational leaders--the bureaucrats, the edu-
cation professors in the universities, the myriad consultants
and other parasites the school system supports (and, of
course, the politicians)--don't agree, even in theory.
A recent article in Scientific American (November 2001) is
an example of how they think and argue. The thrust of the
piece can be gleaned by how it is advertised on the front
cover of the magazine, in the table of contents, and in the
large print on the first page of the article. On the cover,
we read: "Do Small Classes Really Raise Grades?" So here,
mind you, we are not talking about (nor presumably
interested in) whether the children are actually learning
more, only whether their grades (and I presume, their
scores on state-mandated tests), go up. In the table of
contents, under the heading "Does Class Size Matter?,"
it states: "Reducing the number of students per teacher is
not an educational cure-all." Now, this is a different point.
In fact, it is a red herring being dragged across our paths 
to divert us from the real issue: nobody contends that
reducing class size is an "educational cure-all," only that 
it is very important. On the first page of the article itself,
we read: "Legislators are spending billions to reduce class
sizes. Will the results be worth the expense?" Ah, here we
have a hint of the real issue, as far as those who have the
power to influence political decisions are concerned. In
other words, instead of asking what is necessary to have 
a truly effective educational system, one that really 
provides a good education to all the children, regardless 
of gender, ethnic background and economic class, these
researchers, and the people who pay their salaries and to
whom they are accountable and whose mindset they share,
are in fact only interested in incremental improvements 
in a decrepit, vastly under-funded and grossly mismanaged
system. They are, in other words, trying to fix the schools
on the cheap. Without actually saying so, they take it as
given that there will never be enough money to have a
well-functioning school system and proceed from there.
It's somewhat like choosing to put money into an old car
that needs repair instead of buying a new one. If you have
an old car but don't have much money, either on hand or
coming in, you put some money into the repair work that
is most urgently needed. When you have a bit more money,
you have the next few things done. Although the money
spent is mounting up, you keep throwing money into the
old heap, in part because you don't have the cash to buy 
a new one and in part because you've already put a lot of
money into the old one and do not want to throw that all
away. (Hey, I just put $500 to get the brakes done. I can't
junk my car now, so I guess I'll spend another $500 replac-
ing the clutch.) Over time, you might wind up putting
more money into your old car than it would have taken to
buy a new one. And eventually you'll probably buy a new
car anyway (or a "new" used one). Many of us have had
this experience. This is how the big shots are approaching
the school system.
Insofar as the authors of the article have an argument that
addresses the real issue, it is that there is little clear-cut
evidence to show that lowering class-size helps children
learn more. To their credit, they admit that it is very diffi-
cult to get good, hard, scientific evidence about anything
involving education. This should be obvious. How do you
set up a truly scientific study when there are so many vari-
ables and no way to control them and thus to isolate the
particular cause-effect relationship you are interested in?
How do you compare one group of kids, with a given set of
gender, economic and ethnic characteristics, in different
regions, schools and with different teachers, with another?
Even if you choose the same type of kids (ethnically, socio-
economically) in the same region, there are still too many
variables to take into consideration. In fact, if you take kids
from the same classroom in the same school and split them
up in the following year, putting some in a class of, say, 20
students and others in a class of 35, you still have a prob-
lem. How do you control for the fact that the kids are
unique individuals, some better students, brighter and with
more parental support, than others? How do you control for
the fact that the quality of teachers varies greatly, even in the
same school? One may be exceptional, the other poor. One
may be experienced, the other not. One may be burnt out,
while the other is new and enthusiastic. One may just have a
bad year, or not get along with that particular group of chil-
dren, etc., etc. And how do you measure students' progress?
Grades given by the teachers? Very subjective. One-on-one
assessment? Who's doing the assessment and how many 
students do they assess before they get tired? State-mandat-
ed tests? What they actually test is controversial, and on a
given day, how the kids perform may vary. Of course, one
may argue that if the samples are large enough, the variables
In a large class, how does the teacher make sure that all students are
paying attention? At the other end of the scale, isn't it obvious that
in a small class the teacher will have more time to work with each
child individually, to get to know that child, to find out what he/she
knows and doesn't know, to help him/her with the particular prob-
lem he/she may be having, etc? And isn't it obvious that all of these
things add up to better teaching and more learning, even if the
teacher does not change his/her teaching style one iota?
will cancel each other out. The problem is that they obliter-
ate almost everything else, including discernible trends. As a
result, almost any given study in the field of education is
questionable. (Since I entered the school system, I've heard
about a long list of studies that purport to prove a variety of
different claims, some of them in direct contradiction to the
others. My principal is very fond of referring to them,
usually as a way to justify the latest bureaucratic demand,
although she has never actually shown us any of them to us
nor given us the information about where they can be
found. I now believe that for any one study claiming to
prove one thing, there's another--or another one could be
devised--that proves the opposite.)
Even though the authors of our article seem to recognize
this, they still claim to be able to make scientifically-demon-
strated judgments about the issue of class-size reduction.
Their grand conclusion is that there is some modest evi-
dence to show that reducing class size has some beneficial
effect in the primary grades, but that the evidence as far as
higher grades are concerned is more mixed. In other words,
reducing class size in the primary grades, which has already
been done throughout California, is worth it, while reducing
class size in the upper grades, and in middle and high
schools--where, as I indicated before, as many as 45 
children are in a class taught by one teacher (who may have
4 or 5 such classes per day)--is a waste of money.

One of the things that is most revealing about this and most
other studies devoted to educational issues is that the
researchers never ask the opinions of those most directly
involved in the education of children: the teachers, the stu-
dents and the students' parents. (I don't even think they ask
administrators.) Would you rather teach a class of 20 or a
class of 35, and why? Would you rather be in a class of 20
students or a class of 35, and why? Would you prefer your
child to be in a class of 20 students or one of 35, and why?
Of course, the authors of the article will probably reply, this
isn't scientific. But, as they themselves virtually admit, nei-
ther are the studies they cite (nor, I might add, is their own).
Insofar as these (and other) researchers have specific argu-
ments about why reducing class size does not matter, they
boil down to two. One is that even when class sizes are
reduced, teachers don't change their teaching styles. (Implied
here is one of the canards that underlies much if not most of
the discussion about the educational system today. This is
that the problem with our school system is the teachers. We
will return to this.) But so what? Even if the teacher does not
change his/her teaching style (maybe that style is very effec-
tive), in a smaller class the teacher will be able to reach more
students more effectively, will be more familiar with where
they are at and how they learn, and be better able to modify
the curriculum, or the pace of instruction, or the proportion
of time spent reviewing versus teaching new material, to
maximize the kids' learning. One way to look at this is to
divide teachers' instruction into three main types: whole-
group, where the teacher is addressing the whole class; small-
group, where the teacher is working with a smaller group of
select students; and one-on-one, where the teacher works

with one student at a time. In each of these groupings, isn't it
obvious that a teacher will be more effective in a class of 20
students than in one with 35, let alone 40 or 45? In a large
class, how does the teacher make sure that all students are
paying attention? How does he/she ensure participation of all
students? How does he/she know whether the students are
getting what he/she is trying to teach, that he/she is going at
the right speed, etc.? Likewise, with small-group instruction.
At the other end of the scale, isn't it obvious that in a small
class the teacher will have more time to work with each child
individually, to get to know that child, to find out what
he/she knows and doesn't know, to help him/her with the
particular problem he/she may be having, etc? And isn't it
obvious that all of these things add up to better teaching and
more learning, even if the teacher does not change his/her
teaching style one iota?
And all of this omits the not insignificant fact that it is a
hell of a lot easier to manage and teach a class of 20 than
of 35, which means that the teacher will be less stressed
out, more positive and encouraging to the students, less
punitive, etc. Which means that both children and teacher
will enjoy school more and will miss fewer days, that the
teacher will last longer in the classroom, thus being able to
gain more experience, and that fewer teachers will quit the
profession, thus easing the teacher shortage, currently at
near-crisis proportions. But, of course, none of this can be
scientifically verified, can it? And none of it is mentioned
in the article.
The other argument these researchers use to bolster their
claim that class-size doesn't matter beyond the primary
grades is what they call the "Asian paradox": students in
Asia do well (indeed, out-perform U.S. students) even
though class-size in Asian countries is large, even larger
than in the U.S. It is certainly worthwhile discussing why
this may be so, but the argument totally misses the point.
If Asian students do well (even better than U.S. students)
in large classes, might they not learn even more in smaller
classes? And has anybody done a study about that?
This article is typical of the kind of research that is carried
on about education in general and our crisis-ridden school
system in particular: shoddy, an insult to those, both inside
the school system and out, interested in creating truly effec-
tive schools, and good only for promoting one or another
limited, half-baked proposal or, as in this case, arguing
against something meaningful. (It's too expensive to buy a
new car; let's patch up the old jalopy.) The absurdity of the
claim that class size, at least in the upper grades, doesn't
matter can be made apparent by asking that if it is true,
why not raise class size to 60? (I hope none of our educa-
tional leaders reads this; they may take me up on it.)

S    hortage of Teachers
The other main negative effect that lack of investment in
the school system has had on the education of our children
is the shortage of teachers throughout the country. The
number of teachers needed is tremendous. According to the
LA Times (August 15, 2001), by 2011, the shortage national-
ly is expected to reach 2 million, with nearly 300,000 in
California alone. The LA teachers union, UTLA (United
Teachers of Los Angeles), contends that 2.4 million teachers
will be needed in the next 11 years. "The projection jumps
as high as 2.7 million when researchers factor in declining
student-teacher ratios based on nationwide class-size
reduction.... In high-poverty urban and rural areas alone,
more than 700,000 new teachers will be needed in the next
10 years." (United Teacher, September 21, 2001.) The main
reason for this, although by no means not the only one, is
money: teachers are not paid enough for what we do. Along
with other factors (the retirement of "baby boom" teachers,
the shitty conditions teachers work under and the way
we're treated, plus the increase in the school-age popula-
tion--21% over the past ten years), the low pay scale for
teachers is the main reason not enough people are attracted
to the profession (I balked when I wrote that word). It is
also one of the reasons why, equally important, so many
teachers quit after trying it for a while. Those opposed to
raising teachers' salaries argue: why should we pay them
more if they're not doing a good job? (Of course, this does-
n't stop the bureaucrats and politicians from raising their
own already exorbitant salaries periodically.) But the argu-
ment is backward. The proof of the pudding is in the eat-
ing: the undeniable fact is that there is a teacher shortage 
of monstrous proportions. In other words, the job is not
attractive enough as it is to draw and retain the required
number of people. And one of the main reasons for this is
the low level of teachers' salaries compared to other occu-
pations requiring the same, or even less, education, skill
and dedication. "Teachers ages 22-28 earned an average
$7,894 less per year than other college-educated adults of
the same age in 1998. The gap is three times greater for
teachers 44-50, who earned $23,655 less than their counter-
parts in other occupations. The salary gap is worst among
teachers with a master's degree--teachers in that category
earned $32,522 less than non-teachers." (United Teacher,
September 21, 2001). Others argue that teachers shouldn't
be paid more because we get so much vacation time. In an
article on the Op-Ed page of the LA Times, one brilliant
commentator even suggested requiring teachers to attend
professional development classes and carry out other tasks
during their time off. If the teacher shortage is bad now, you
wouldn't get anybody to do the job if this proposal were
implemented; those who tried it would be dead from exhaus-
tion after two years. (And if the professional development he
has in mind is anything like the kind I've been subjected to,
teachers would die of boredom and low self-esteem after one.)
Actually, the teacher shortage has been around for a long
time, but before 1970 the problem was hidden by the fact
that the system was staffed by a de facto captive work force:
women. Prior to the women's liberation movement, there
were very few jobs open to college-educated women (and not
that many woman going to college). Two careers that were
available to them were teaching and nursing. Among other
things, the women's movement opened up a lot of new
opportunities to women, and the captive workforce was (at
least partly) liberated. Although this has exacerbated the
teacher shortage over the years, it has had a positive impact:
an increase in the number of men in the classrooms, particu-
larly in the elementary schools.
Simple economics should suggest that the main way to elimi-
nate the teacher shortage is to raise salaries until the market
reaches equilibrium, in other words, until the supply of teach-
ers equals the demand. (People who support vouchers talk
about bringing "market forces" to bear on the school system;
here is where they really matter.) But this would cost a lot of
money, which the economic and political decision-makers are
not willing to spend (or to shift from their higher priorities,
such as the military budget, agricultural subsidies and their
own outrageously inflated incomes). So instead of the drastic
increase in teacher salaries that is needed to really cope with
the shortage, our leaders are resorting to moral exhortation to
convince idealistic people to become teachers and make the
world a better place. Undoubtedly, some will respond to this
appeal, but will it really be able to solve a teacher shortage of
the magnitude the system is facing? I wouldn't count on it. In
a country whose culture increasingly stresses making money
(and being famous), relying on idealism to fix the school sys-
tem will not take us very far. It is also unfair to teachers; we
should be idealistic, while everybody else (including the politi-
cians) goes all out to get rich. It should be obvious that the
schools would function a lot better if teachers' salaries were
substantially increased, even leaving aside the not irrelevant
fact that our morale, now not very high, would improve if we
were paid more. To see why, it's worth looking at how the
teacher shortage actually affects the schools.

Anyone Need a Job?
One of the things the teacher shortage means is that the
school system has been willing to hire almost anyone who met
(extremely) minimal criteria. In the LAUSD, if one has a BA
degree and passed a state test (the CBEST, or California Basic
Educational Skills Test) which requires reading, writing and
math skills on approximately the level of a sophomore in high
school, one can get what is called an "emergency credential"
and start teaching. (I almost forgot, you also need to be inter-
viewed by one of the generally stuffy interviewers in the
recruiting office in LAUSD headquarters. But since the district
is in chronic need of teachers, only the most obviously unfit
candidates are weeded out by this process.) With an emer-
gency credential one can get hired and teach full-time in a
classroom (even special education classes), while one pursues
a teaching program at a bona fide educational institution. I
believe one has five years to complete a program and get a cre-
dential, although extensions are often granted. Moreover, with
an emergency credential (I'm not sure whose emergency it is, a
school system desperate for teachers or the prospective teacher
desperate for a job), one can be a substitute teacher forever,
and never be required either to be enrolled in a teaching pro-
gram or to get a teaching credential.
As a result, the school system has become a kind of dumping
ground for all sorts of people who do not really want to be
teachers and shouldn't be. Some of them are people who were
failures in other careers and decided to be teachers because
they couldn't find other jobs. (Lest people think I am judging,
I confess that this was my situation.) Others are people who,
when they started teaching, preferred to be pursuing different
careers, such as acting or writing or opening a business, but
who have not (yet) been able to make these paying proposi-
tions. So they teach as a way to survive until they can make a
living doing what they really want to do. Now, some of these
people go on to become good, dedicated teachers. Others stay
on only as long as they get established in their desired voca-
tions or until they can't take being a teacher any longer and
then quit. Still others, never get established in their preferred
careers and continue teaching out of desperation, even though
they hate their jobs (and the kids).
Some examples will demonstrate how this works out in prac-
tice. When I first started teaching, I taught a combined fifth
and sixth grade class, starting in the middle of the school year.
At the end of my first day, a teacher from across the hall
knocked on my door. He was a tall man in his mid-50s, with
thinning, graying hair, a beer-belly and a tired expression on
his face. After introducing himself, he began complaining
about the job: the kids don't want to learn, he can't control
them, he's got to get of out of here, etc. He obviously needed
someone to commiserate with. Even though his political views
were extremely reactionary, he seemed like a nice guy and,
since I didn't know anybody at the school, we became friends.
We wound up having our classes take physical education
together and occasionally hung out. But his tune was always
the same. He couldn't take the job anymore,
the kids were driving him crazy, how can you teach when the
kids don't want to learn and their parents don't give a damn?,
etc. And he always had just heard about another job some-
where else that sounded easier, a "better gig," and wanted me
to look into it with him. One of these was teaching convicts 
in a state prison, where, he told me, you don't have to worry
about controlling the class. Another was to teach English in 
an Asian country where--apparently a prime consideration
for him--you could have all the women you want, since
they're so anxious to meet a rich American. Despite the 
problems I was having controlling my own class, I was glad 
to have a job (any job), and wasn't tempted.
Eventually, I learned his story. He was the son of an army
officer (a general, if I remember correctly), and was never
able to live up to his father's expectations. He wound up
working in the business world somewhere, but didn't like the
job very much and had heard that teaching was an "easy gig."
(Do I detect a pattern here?) After all, you get out of work
early and have a lot of vacations. But teaching turned out to
be harder than he thought. His big problem was that he
couldn't manage his students yet refused to set up a "behav-
ior management plan" (a system of rules, rewards and pun-
ishments most teachers use as a tool to control the kids). The
way he figured it, the kids were supposed to behave because
they should want to learn. (What planet was he from!) Since
they didn't, work was a living hell for him: 34 pre-teens in an
unstructured environment will do that to you.
At one point, he was so desperate that he decided to teach
kindergarten, despite the fact that he had no experience at
this level and, by his own admission, didn't know the first
thing about teaching reading, the main curricular task in that
grade. Since his seniority was high enough (in LAUSD, teach-
ers have the right, now somewhat constricted, to choose
their positions based on their seniority), he bid for kinder-
garten and wound up with a combined kindergarten-first
grade class, one of the hardest "splits" to teach. By then, I was
teaching kindergarten and had an afternoon class, so I was
required to help out in his. The first day of school was chaos.
Kids were crying (a few usually do) and a couple tried to run
out of the classroom. (I had to physically restrain one girl,
with the permission of her father). Distraught parents were
screaming and wouldn't leave the room (you have to kick
them out, I mean, firmly encourage them to leave). My friend
didn't have a clue about what to do. I don't think he had
planned anything; he was just going to "wing it." His biggest
problem was (you guessed it), he couldn't get the kids to pay
attention to him and do what he wanted them to do. He
couldn't even get them to line up. When I tried to show him
how to do it, the kids began following me; they thought I was

the teacher. After several days of mayhem (and many parent
complaints), the administration convinced the man to take an
upper-grade class again and brought in a new teacher who had
some experience in kindergarten. A year or so later, my friend
injured his foot kicking a ball in the yard, and took an extend-
ed disability leave. When, after many months, his disability ran
out but his foot had still not healed, he resigned his position.
The last I heard he was teaching English in Thailand, sur-
rounded, I presume, by a lot of women.
Although this teacher's saga may have been unique, his situa-
tion is not. At any given time, in any given school, there are
several-to-many teachers who are not up to the job (I am not
now talking about lack of experience): they are there because
of an accident, because they can't do anything else, because
they used to be capable but have gotten burned out, etc., etc.
And yet, despite the man's obvious incompetence, to my
knowledge he never received an unsatisfactory evaluation
from an administrator, had never been reprimanded or disci-
plined, was never asked to leave the school. I'm not sure he
was even given any advice. Oh yes, he was once asked to take 
a workshop on dealing with difficult students, but since he
didn't believe in setting up a behavior management plan--
one of the key points of the workshop--and nobody
insisted that he do so, it was a waste of time. How
many teachers like this does a child need to have before
he or she falls hopelessly behind? And once children fall
behind, every teacher who has those kids afterwards has to
work twice as hard to try to get them caught up to where
they are supposed to be, which slows down the progress of
the rest of the class (and lowers test scores). Finally, if you
realize that given the way the school system is run, a child may
not have just one teacher like this in his/her school career,
but two or three or more, you can get an inkling of why our
school system doesn't work very well.
Another example will flesh out the picture. One year a young
woman in her 20s (maybe she was 30), was hired by our
school. Because she was fluent in Spanish, she was required 
to take a lower grade class on D Track, then the so-called
Hispanic track. She landed a combined first-second grade
class. However, because of bureaucratic mix-ups, she was not
able to start work until sometime in September, even though
year-round schools' academic year starts at the beginning of
Interactive learning in science. (DuPage Children's Museum, Naperville, IL)
July. (To get processed by the district, the woman needed her
college transcript. But since her alma mater, including its
administration, shuts down for the summer, she had no way 
to get a transcript to turn in to district headquarters. And the
district wouldn't approve her to start working, even though
she had landed a position at our school, until they had the
transcript.) As a result, during July and August her students
had a series of substitutes (I remember three; there may have
been more). When she finally was allowed to start work 
sometime in September, she was thrown into the classroom,
like all new teachers, without any help whatsoever. She didn't
even have an aide. (When she finally got one, months later, the
aide was not Spanish speaking, but spoke Armenian, even
though all the kids in her class were Latino. She didn't need a
Spanish-speaking aide, she was told, because she herself spoke
Spanish.) Since once again, I had an afternoon class, and since
my room partner was off-track, I was directed to help this new
teacher in her class.
When I arrived (she had been there several days), it was
clear that she, too, had no idea what to do. The room was
filthy. Some of the kids were wrestling on the carpet. Others
were practicing skating (in their socks), on the smooth part
of the floor. They were all talking or yelling. All of this
while she was in the front of the room trying to teach them
something (I presume). Since I didn't feel it was my posi-
tion to interfere directly (as opposed to give her some
advice when, say, the kids were out at recess), I asked her
what she wanted me to do. She didn't know. After suggest-
ing that I read with some of the students one-on-one,
I asked her how their reading was coming along. She
replied that none of them was reading. When I asked about
a particular boy who I had had the previous year, one I
knew was reading well, she insisted he wasn't reading either.
I asked her to show me. She gave the boy a book that was
appropriate for a third or fourth grader (the boy was in the
first grade) and when he couldn't read it (big surprise), she
said, "See!" I went to my classroom and got a book I knew
to be on his level and he began reading it very competently.
When I suggested to the teacher that she find material that
was appropriate to the child's reading level, she replied,
"Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah." This, as I soon learned, was her
standard reply to every teacher's attempt to help her. She
already knew everything.
When it was time to have the kids go to recess, she couldn't 
get the kids to line up without pushing, fighting and scream-
ing. I asked her if I could show her how to do it. (Getting kids
to line up at recess, or before any activity that they want to do,
is relatively easy. You just make it clear that they're not going
to do it until they are all lined up quietly, and then you wait.
Eventually, they get the point.) But my demonstration was in
vain. The kids responded well, but the teacher didn't under-
stand and could never figure out how to do it. When I talked
to other teachers who had had contact with this woman, they
all told me they had had the same experience. When one
teacher, a personal friend and an experienced teacher who had
recommended her for the job, showed up one afternoon to
give a sample lesson, the new teacher wouldn't even let her in
the room. After a while, I became so concerned about the 
children in her class, who clearly weren't learning anything,
that I spoke to the principal about the situation. She suggested
I talk to her mentor (new teachers are assigned mentors, more
experienced teachers to whom one can go for advice and sug-
gestions) and told me who it was. Since this individual didn't
seem to be concerned about the situation (I assume he had
visited his charge's classroom), and since the principal obvi-
ously didn't want to talk to either him or the teacher, I didn't
pursue this. I kept trying to give the teacher advice, but she
always acted as if she knew everything already. The situation
became so bad that parents volunteered to be in her class-
room, both to help her out and to be able to document her
incompetence. Some parents tried to get their kids transferred
out of the class, but were told there was no space in any other
class. At one point, one of the parents who had been in the
classroom on a regular basis, questioned the teacher's compe-
tence at a meeting at which the principal was present. The
principal defended the teacher, whom she described as 
"excellent," despite the fact that I and several others had told
her what was going on. Eventually, the parents just gave up
and decided that their kids just had to survive the year. After
all, what could they do? Most of them weren't even very angry.
They saw the teacher as a young, well-intentioned person who
couldn't control the kids.
The woman survived that year and one more. I think she left
when she was asked to enroll in a teacher training program.
In any case, she told me, she wasn't able to save any money
and never really wanted to be a teacher anyway. (I don't
remember what her preferred career was. I think she wanted
to write children's books.)

High Rate of Turnover
As this story suggests, another of the big problems associated
with the teacher shortage is a tremendous turnover of teach-
ers, particularly in the inner-city schools, where they are
needed most and where teaching is the most demanding. The
figure I've heard cited most frequently since I've been teach-
ing is that, over the course of 5 years, 50% of new teachers
quit. In other words, if 10 new teachers enter the field in one
year, in five years' time, 5 of them will have left. And if this is
the average for, say, all of LAUSD, it is even higher in the
schools serving the poorest, most oppressed communities,
where the facilities are worst, the problems the children bring
with them to school are greatest and teacher morale the low-
est. Here, the turnover has a powerful cumulative effect. High
turnover and consequently fewer experienced teachers results
in a poorly performing school, as defined, for example, by low
test scores, high absence rates, greater disciplinary problems,
less parental involvement, etc. Yet, these very problems make
it that much harder to hold onto teachers until they get the
necessary experience. Many teachers who can leave do so,
either by transferring to another school in the district, trans-
ferring to another district, or abandoning the field altogether.
This forces the school to hire yet more inexperienced teach-
ers, which keeps the test scores down, etc.
As this shows, one of the things the high rate of turnover
means is that at any given time, there is a large number of
inexperienced people in the classroom. A rough indication of
this is the large number of uncredentialed teachers currently
working in the school system, that is, teachers who have not
been trained to be teachers and have not received their state
credential. In 1999-2000, in California, there were 40,000
teachers, or roughly 14% of the workforce, working on emer-
gency credentials. In urban schools generally, the percentage is
closer to 20%, while in LAUSD, the figure is over 35%. (Nearly
half of California's teachers working on emergency credentials
are in LA County.) In some poorly performing schools (usual-
ly those in the poorest communities), 50%-90% of the teach-
ers may be working on emergency credentials. Moreover, these
teachers tend to be concentrated in "hard to fill" subjects, such
as special education, math and science. (All these figures are
from the California Educator, June 2001, pp. 8-9.)
As should be obvious, this situation has a profound impact on
the students and their progress, because in this business, the
most important factor in the making of a good teacher, leav-
ing aside questions of personality (liking children, being able
to manage them and communicate with them, etc.), is experi-
ence. (In my opinion, it is considerably more important than
formal training, most of which is worthless.) It took me three
years of teaching kindergarten before I felt I had even a mod-
est idea of what I was doing, and another two before I felt I
was not unfairly damaging the kids I wasn't able to reach. And
I was lucky, since I had the opportunity be a room partner
with--that is, to work with, watch and learn from--an experi-
enced and highly effective teacher. (If I had taught a higher
grade, I would not have had this advantage, and it would have
taken me that much longer to become a decent teacher.) If it
takes three-to-five years to become competent and if, at any
given time, there is a significant number of teachers in the
schools who do not have this amount of experience, it should
be obvious how deleterious the teaching shortage is. But
instead of doing what is necessary to overcome this shortage,
most importantly, raising teachers' salaries (and treating teach-
ers with respect) our political and educational leaders have lit-
tle more to propose than moral exhortation. I suppose George
W. will take up teaching, to continue making the world a 
better place, after he leaves the White House.
In middle and high schools, one result of the teacher shortage
is the large percentage of classes taught by teachers with little
academic training in the subjects they are teaching. According
to a report by the Education Trust, an "advocacy group" based
in Washington, DC, "27% of math, English, science and social
studies classes in California's secondary schools are taught by
people who had neither a college major nor a minor in the
fields they are teaching. Nationally, the number is 24%." The
educational bureaucracy's attitude is typical. "It is better to
have someone at least trying to teach science than to have
absolutely no science," says Kerry Mazzoni, California's educa-
tion secretary (LA Times, August 22, 2002). (Absolutely!--
although God forbid anyone suggest raising teachers' salaries
enough to attract fully qualified people.)
Still another effect of the teacher shortage is the large number
of substitutes, many of whom have only emergency creden-
tials, in the classroom on any given day. I am not talking pri-
marily about the use of substitutes (many of whom have no
regular credential) when a teacher is sick or otherwise absent
for a day or two. That's bad enough. I am referring to the use
of substitutes on a relatively long-term basis when a regular
teacher, with either a full credential or emergency credential,
Kerry Mazzoni, California State Education Secretary
(Office of the Secretary for Education, California)
has not been hired for the position or when the assigned
teacher is out for an extended period of time. In the example I
just discussed, during the period the woman was waiting to be
cleared (July and August), her prospective students had, at a
minimum, three different substitutes. At least these subs were
there for a week or more, so the kids had some sense of
continuity. In some cases, classes like that might get a dif-
ferent sub every day! How are the kids going to learn any-
thing if there is a different person in the classroom each
day, one who doesn't know the children, doesn't know
what they know or what they've been taught (or even what
the previous sub did the day before), and who may not
have any experience teaching that particular grade, or any
teaching experience at all?
There was another teacher at our school who was on an
extended disability leave for months (I think she had hurt her
back), but refused to resign her position. It seemed like there
was a different substitute in her class (which was a kinder-
garten) every day or every few days. I remember one of them.
He was an older man, who wore suspenders and whose pant
legs ended considerably above his ankles. His teeth needed
cleaning and he had an odd look in his eyes. A baseball cap
completed the picture. He appeared to be a few steps removed
from a homeless shelter. From the homework he was sending
home with his kids (which I spotted when our kindergarten
classes were eating lunch in the kindergarten yard), I saw that
he was trying to teach his students a new letter every day.
Either he was Super Teacher or he didn't know what he was
doing. (When I teach a letter, both its name and its sound, I
need several days to do so, sometimes even a week, using a
variety of activities, and at the end of that time there may still
be one or more kids who can't tell you what the letter is or
what sound it makes.) When I asked him if he needed any
help, he politely declined. "I've been doing this for 40 years,"
he said. (God help us!)
Of course, not all the teachers on emergency credentials, and
certainly not all of the substitutes, are incompetent or teach-
ing only as a means to survive until they "make it" in the
movie business, or until something better comes along, or
because they've heard it's an "easy gig." Many talented, dedi-
cated teachers have entered the profession via emergency cre-
dentials, and it is probably a good thing there's a way for
people who may have studied something else in college or
pursued other careers to become teachers. Yet because of the
teacher shortage, the students, the school system as a whole,
and the new teachers themselves pay a price. This is because
they walk in the door and start teaching with virtually no
help whatsoever. As a result, they and the kids suffer until
they (the teachers) figure out what they're doing.

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