Critics of public education can justifiably point to piles of data showing stagnant test scores and other indicators of failure. School defenders say that isn’t important, that wonderful things happen in our schools as dedicated teachers triumph over great odds. Sadly, neither side seems to spend much time in real classrooms.
I did, and what I found was scary.
In the spring of 2004 I was between jobs when I decided to sign on as a substitute teacher in a suburban Oklahoma City school district. Its schools range from moderately affluent to near inner-city, making it a good laboratory to observe public education at work on a daily basis. I took notes and recorded them in a diary-style manuscript, which remains unpublished, for reasons to be explained later.
Here’s how our public schools really look, sound, and work:
* * *
The coach who teaches this Oklahoma history class has posted class rules that include “act responsible” and “respect opinions,” so it’s a good thing he is not teaching English. Today we are watching a Tom Cruise movie as most of the class sleeps or messages on cell phones.
“He is useless,” a cheerleader confides to me later. She says perhaps one in four of her teachers in a four-year high school career were good; the rest ranged from abysmal to mediocre.
Down the hall in another coach’s room the Oklahoma history students have completed their semester projects, crude posters, most of them completed at levels reminiscent of elementary school. What they will not complete is Oklahoma history. The worksheets we are doing today are on a chapter that precedes statehood, and there are only 10 class days left in this semester.
An assistant principal later assures me that Coach is a fine teacher, but he did not have a planning period this semester. A bored student told me the real problem.
“He sits back there all class on his computer chatting with his girlfriend,” he student said. “We watch videos.”
* * *
The students in this high school English class are asked to write each day, which is good. Today their short essays are about famous people they would like to meet in real life. One would have loved to have encountered “Martian Luther King,” while a second lists Einstein “because he invented many useful things we still use today. Like the light bulb.”
Still I give this English teacher credit, since others in the same discipline have told me that students no longer diagram sentences or memorize poetry. “We gave up on that years ago,” one teacher told me.
Another English teacher has apparently given up on learning entirely. Her class is studying Ivanhoe, but their brief reports indicate that they have not touched the actual book. Instead they depend on the TV and VCR permanently installed in this teacher’s classroom.
“My idea in the movie is the bead then the war was very important for the king because when they are go to fight they need to allot of people and they was the winner,” wrote one Ivanhoe fan.
In a corner of the classroom I found a complete set of the Great Books on a custom-built shelf, gathering dust.
“Do you use those?” I asked a student.
He looked at the shelf. “What are those?”
* * *
Here’s the spoor of a real teacher. The board is covered with lecture notes, color coded in several hues, detailing every important fact about the French Revolution. The rolling cart he uses as a lectern is stacked with supplementary books tabbed and annotated to help make crucial points.
Students hand in their quizzes, which have real questions about facts of importance; I checked.
“We have three quizzes a week,” one tells me. “Plus about an hour of homework every night.”
The comparison to the dolts teaching those other history classes, with their dreary worksheets and crude posters and countless videos, is stark. The students in those classes were sullen, bored, and often disruptive. Here they are animated and well behaved.
“Do you like this class?” I ask one of the test takers.
“Oh yeah!” he beams. Apparently high expectations work.
* * *
The middle school science class is (natch!) watching a video. Their assignment is to record 10 facts they glean from the video. Ten. Not nine, and certainly not 11. Here is what one boy writes:
- 17 speaseas of penguin
- antarctica is white that is its beauty
- northern constillation bear
- whales live in there ocean
- seals live in there ocean
- penguins live in there ocean
- birds fly in there
- crill is protean
In classroom after classroom, in subject after subject, in grade level after grade level, I have encountered this same kind of dreary, uninspired, boring instruction. Teachers sit at desks, often puttering on their computers, while students plod through head-down worksheets or checklists or multiple-choice tests. Or, they watch endless videos which may or may not have much to do with the subject at hand. (We screened Forrest Gump in an American government class one day.)
Certainly such lessons may be planned more often when a substitute is on hand, but time after time when I asked students if this was routine they assured me it was . . . that in fact not much teaching in the active sense actually happened there.
The contrast was even more obvious when I ran across the rare island of excellence like that history teacher who was expounding on the French Revolution. I found good teachers in science as well, and one math teacher had decorated her classroom with Marine recruiting posters.
“No discipline,” she mumbled. “I don’t have time to teach. All this self-esteem business . . . they get it by doing good work.”
* * *
In the 1960s teachers nationwide were asked to list the biggest disciplinary problems they faced in the classroom. They listed running in hallways, talking in class, passing notes, and chewing gum.
In the 1990s teachers cited assault, weapons, drugs, and rape.
The classrooms and hallways I frequented for four months were, with rare exceptions, chaotic bordering on dangerous. I broke up several fights and saw others, but the real threat to learning was the constant background buzz of chaos caused by the 10 to 30 percent of students who clearly had no desire to be there and every intention of disrupting the process for those who did.
One day while I was waiting in a high-school classroom during a planning period I counted how many students passed down the hallway, one of six in that building. In 15 minutes 42 students who should have been in class wandered past my doorway, and I doubt that 10 percent of them had hall passes.
Later, in the middle of class, while students were supposed to be reviewing worksheets and past quizzes for an upcoming biology final, a female student loudly yanked the door open, strolled in, and began chatting with some students who were sitting at a lab bench and watching rap videos on a portable video player.
I walked over and asked her where she had come from.
“Africa!” she shouted. It took 15 minutes to send her on her way.
“There’s a law that says they have to be here,” a good student told me one afternoon as we watched several students crossing the parking lot and vaulting a fence, 20 minutes before the final bell. We were in an advanced-placement chemistry class, which felt like a beleaguered island of learning amidst a rising tide of barbarism.
“I say if they don’t want to be here, let ‘em go,” the student continued.
“If I was a teacher,” a classmate said, “I’d end up beatin’ ‘em all. Me, I’d carry a two by four.”
Another student scowled and said, “They ought to bring back paddling.”
A young woman who said she wanted to be a forensic chemist watched the gang bangers cutting class.
“Who’d want to dress like people in prison?” she marveled.
* * *
“I just want to get out of here,” an honor student told me in mid-May, shortly before graduation. A few days before I had encountered a student in a psychology class who expressed his disappointment with the head-down, do-the-worksheet drudgery he had experienced all semester from yet another uninspired and uninspiring teacher.
“Like, I wanted to learn about real psychology, what people are like,” he said.
First, there are a lot of drones in public education today, poor to mediocre teachers who are just putting in their time for a pension. There may also be some decent teachers who have opted for mediocrity because the system expects little more.
Second, the lack of effective discipline and order in most schools prevents a great deal of learning.
Third, students and the people who pay billions for public education deserve better.
So how to fix it?
* * *
Real merit pay that rewards the best teachers, really rewards them. If I was running a merit pay system in that school I’d award that outstanding history teacher an annual salary of at least $100,000. If you want to know one of the primary flaws in education today, reflect on the fact that that teacher who teaches with passion and effectiveness and enthralls his students is getting paid the same as those pitiful drones who barely teach Oklahoma history at all.
Real discipline, either using expulsion or on-site boot camps for the truly recalcitrant. These thugs take too much time and cause too many problems. The school disciplinary policies I saw were lawyer-driven miasmas of multiple written referrals and stages of offenses that no one—especially the students—took seriously.
If we can’t kick them out then let’s hire some retired Marine drill instructors to haul them off to the gym and teach them what discipline means.
Dumbing down makes people dumber, not smarter. One kid, writing about the poem “The Highwayman,” said it was about “a rober who wates and robes people.” I checked the grade book; he was making an A.
Not every student is headed for college. But every student can and should be held to a basic standard of language and numerical literacy. I encountered high school students who, when asked to read aloud, could barely negotiate a simple paragraph.
We should also expand alternative certification programs to attract more people to teaching by a non-traditional pathway, outside of the education schools which ground out all those genuinely poor—and many outright crappy—teachers I encountered.
And stop, stop, stop squalling about money, education establishment. You have no excuses for the mediocrity that is so prevalent in classrooms today, and more money would simply underwrite more mediocrity.
* * *
So in the end I had a lengthy manuscript detailing an entire semester of up-close and personal observations of modern American public education, warts, scabs, and all. I found some things to praise and much to abhor, some reasons for hope and others for despair. Of course the New York publishers were not interested, but an academic press right here in Oklahoma took a real interest. They had to submit it to some referees, and one turned out to be a liberal faculty member who, of course, torpedoed it as “biased.”
Seems a lot of people in education don’t want us to see what goes on in those classrooms. We might just expect them to change things for the better.
Mike Brake is a journalist and writer who has recently authored a centennial history of Putnam City Schools. He served as chief writer for Gov. Frank Keating and for then-Lt. Gov. and Congresswoman Mary Fallin, and has also served as an adjunct instructor at OSU-OKC.