Sarah Seltzer

June 13, 2007

Bill Gates is so well-meaning it hurts. He wants with all his heart to embrace an issue that goes almost unmentioned in politics: education. With his catchy and costly ED in ’08 campaign, he’s doing his darndest to get candidates to actually care about fixing one of the most broken systems imaginable, our public schools. Gates, who’s done a lot of research, wants three changes: rewards for good teachers (through competitive merit pay) a uniform national curriculum, and longer school days and hours. Sounds great on the surface.

Beyond the hype though, those priorities reflect a band-aid mentality. Comparing my time working in the public school system with my own privileged education, I’ve come to realize that much of public education today is practically designed to keep all but a bright and motivated few lower-income kids from achieving social and economic equality. To really level the playing field, public schools need to move towards a model more like elite schools’ (for the purposes of this article, I’m lumping in affluent public schools with private schools.) Following are some truly radical priorities that would change schools from the ground up.


Size it up


Let’s start with an issue that makes policy makers blanch because of the money required: class size. Reducing class size means building new classrooms and hiring more teachers. But it’s inherently biased to put poorer kids in bigger classes. In regimented classes of over 30 children, the attributes that help students achieve are diligence and obedience (and teachers are more authoritarian).

In smaller classes, where conversation can flow more freely, the qualities that help students achieve are analysis, leadership and questioning. One set of skills puts students in managed mode; the other promotes students into manager mode. I can’t emphasize that difference enough.

Since kids from poor and middle-class homes are less likely to have other mentors around–nannies, tutors, counselors and the like–the chance to talk with adults and air their opinions is more important for them. But they don’t get that chance. When I taught during the NYC subway strike and attendance shrunk, all my formerly rowdy students turned docile. In the more intimate environment, their attitudes towards school and authority were different.


The long and short of it


This kind of individual attention can do more than an extra half hour of classroom time will ever do. Kids are kids, after all–they tend to lose focus. An hour and a half and two hours of math are virtually equal in terms of what a child can absorb, and everyone who teaches knows that nothing gets done in June. You don’t see private schools clamoring for longer years; they have the shortest school calendars around! But those calendars are packed with vital activities–newspapers, sports teams, theater productions, field days. These are a bonus that encourages kids to come to school and help to build self-esteem and passion, not to mention a nice resume for colleges.


Quality time


Most kids, however, are not so well cared for. They go home each day feeling little connection to the place that’s supposed to be shaping them. If activities were better funded, many of them would show up thrilled about their debate or tournament later in the day. And when they join activities, they will often buckle down and study to maintain their chance to shine. Students can’t learn without a sense of self and an emotional center. We need to help inspire and invigorate kids as human beings first. It’s the best tool for helping to free their minds to learn.

Extracurricular activities also help develop crucial mentee-mentor relationships with faculty and older students. Bringing teachers and students closer together, though, requires a sea-change in the way our country views teachers. At the moment we blast teachers and their unions, while spouting glib maxims about the precious task of educating young minds. Please! How we treat teachers is a reflection of how we view kids, and teachers in the public schools are treated like drudge workers. They have to clock in, are at the mercy of their superiors and often spend more time arranging bulletin boards to reflect bogus standards than brushing up on their grammar, math or French skills.

Each day at the Bronx school where I taught, teachers who forgot to hand in attendance folders were "called-out" on a schoolwide loudspeaker. Meanwhile, administrators worried that I was a "bad" teacher because of my classroom’s arrangement–but when my kids did well on a test, I was suddenly "good." In fact, neither of these things were a reflection of my ability, but these are the kinds of standards politicians advocate to judge educators.


Dollar-dollar bill


That’s why professionalizing teaching is not just about money (although it helps, I agree with Bill). Many teachers will take a pay cut to teach at independent schools where they get control over the content they teach, respect from the community and a chance to hone their skills in front of smaller classes. They’d rather embrace concepts like multiplication tables than worry about "classroom management" techniques to bribe, cajole, trick or terrorize students into keeping their mouths shut and passing another standardized test.

Yes, there are bad teachers everywhere, at public, private, parochial schools and universities, just like there are bad coaches, drill sergeants, priests and CEOs. But this insane focus on "rewarding good teachers" and lengthening the school year are both a giant distraction. While we waste our time wringing our hands about a small percentage of educators, we’re losing focus on the people who matter, our students. Our kids. Let’s start by worrying about their needs: individual attention from adults, a chance to pursue passions and dreams and teachers who are able develop to their highest potential. These ideas are just the tip of the iceberg. You listening, Bill?

For more information about issues related to this article, check these links:
Merit Pay
Underpaid Teachers
New York Times article on Gates initiative
An elementary school teacher’s perspective on the Gates ED in ’08 plan.

Sarah M. Seltzer is a freelance writer and part-time educator living in New York City.