I recently read Ed Boland's book The Battle for Room 314, a memoir of his foray into middle school history teaching in a New York City public school. Boland, a native upstate New Yorker, was living in New York City and working in an educational nonprofit when he decided to become a teacher. After the necessary training, much of which Boland found useless and disheartening, he joined Union Street School (name was likely changed), in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
The theme of his memoir is mostly despair. The vast majority of the memoir recounts his students' many behavior problems at Union Street, their troubling and challenging backgrounds, and his struggles to create lessons that were meaningful and inspiring.
The memoir was at times troubling, since it played into already existing tropes about inner city schools and kids. Readers get the impression that the vast majority of students at inner city schools are hopelessly beyond saving, and many are downright thugs. I suspect the reality for many inner city teachers is different. I suspect that there are just as many teachers who stuck around (Boland left teaching after 1 year), who have found there are many kids who are well behaved and receptive to learning.
The part of Boland's memoir that I found most interesting was unfortunately the section he wrote least about; which is what to do about our educational system. This question has become even more salient as the Trump administration seems to be interested in radically overhauling our public education system. Betsy DeVos is the new Education Secretary, hailing from the charter school movement in Michigan (which has had mixed results, and I think that is a charitable assessment).
The first large scale recommendation Boland makes is to integrate schools. The history of school integration is a story most Americans don't know that well. I teach it in my U.S. History survey courses, clearly and openly, but students find the story depressing and often many don't believe it. In 1954, Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court ordered schools to desegregate. The story often stops there. But in reality, states dragged their feet as long as they could to delay implementing the ruling. Other communities, initially in the South, and later in the North, openly resisted integration. Schools, such as Central High School in Little Rock, AR shut down rather than be integrated. In Boston in the 1970s, there were riots in the streets over busing integration. In 1968, in Green v. New Kent County, the courts ordered that schools had a legal duty to carry out integration, all but demanding communities that had been resisting integration to move forward. In 1971, Swann v. Mecklenburg declared that busing students to achieve integration was a viable option. A brief period of busing integration began, and saw students bused to integrated schools. It was a contentious few years, which saw massive resistance mostly in northern cities such as New York, Boston and Chicago. In 1974, in Milliken v. Bradley, the courts declared that states could halt busing integration if they wanted to, and in many communities, the school desegregation movement came to a halt.
As Nikole Hannah Jones has reported, there was a brief period of integration in schools, and research has reported that those students did exceptionally well. Integration benefits lower income students and may be more effective than traditional pedagogical remedies. However, we expected it to be easy, and when it wasn't we gave up. Schools now are approaching segregation levels of the 1950s and 1960s, the era when Brown v. Board was handed down. White families have more options to get their kids out of integrated schools than ever. Private schools and the 'freedom of choice' movement for independent and charter schools promise an alternative for higher income Americans who don't want to send their kids to public schools. * Just to be open, I went to public schools in Northern California, but my community was not very diverse, Chico is probably 75% white, so most students went to the public schools.
This has no end in sight, at least until 2020, because Betsy DeVos and the Trump Administration has shown no inclination to integrate schools. In fact, in recent testimony, Mrs. DeVos would not even pretend that she would defend students from discrimination from schools and states. Instead, she simply recited the talking point that the administration believes parents can make better choices for kids than D.C. However, I'm employing a wait and see approach here, because as the New York Times has reported, DeVos' staff is more diverse than many realize.
The second prescription Boland made is the rethink school funding. In the vast majority of states, funding for schools comes from property taxes. This is an idiotic policy that only furthers inequality in our nation's schools. The communities who need more of the funding, don't have it, while rich communities enjoy all the benefits. In my home state of California, Prop 13, which prohibited raising property taxes, has really presented an enormous challenges to the schools of the Golden State. We must rethink school funding to make it more equitable and fair for all students. Education is truly one of the main antidotes to income inequality, but we have to make sure that communities have access to quality schools. Rethinking school funding is an absolute necessity.
A third idea Boland advocates is to improve teacher training and support. I wholeheartedly agree with this prescription. In my experience, the pedagogical training in classes I have taken has been laughably inadequate. Most of the techniques, assignments and activities that I use in my classroom I have learned from colleagues, read about on my own, or developed through trial and error. To be fair, at the University of Georgia, they offer a College Teacher certificate, which has more pedagogical training options, I opted not to pursue this on the advice of my advisor, who urged me to focus on finishing the dissertation above all else. Much of the teacher training I received was very traditional, and did not reflect the pedagogical developments in the field. Active learning, cooperative learning and experiential learning are becoming so popular that I would argue they are almost a requirement for teachers. I did not receive much training in any of this new pedagogy, most of what I know I learned on my own. I reckon that's a problem.
Boland also advocates that Teacher's Unions need to be more flexible and states need to have greater leeway to discipline or fire ineffective teachers. On this point, I disagree, with a caveat. I do agree that Unions should hold ineffective teachers more accountable, and should not protect a teacher that clearly fails the students. However, in many states, Unions that give an inch lose a mile. In states like Wisconsin and Tennessee, Teacher's Unions have been stripped of bargaining rights, have strict caps on pay raises, and other limits. Teachers in many states, particularly in the South, don't have unions at all. While you can perhaps accuse of using a slippery slope argument, I don't think its hyperbole. I believe teacher's need higher pay and more benefits, not less, and unions are the only organization fighting for teachers.
Part of this you could say is self serving (since I'm currently a teacher), but I also believe there is a brain drain in the profession. The best and the brightest often don't go into teaching, they go into more lucrative careers. Teaching is at times a rewarding career, but mostly its an incredibly challenging career. We need talented minds in the classroom, and this leads me to my next point, which is that we need higher compensation for teachers. For anyone who works in education but wants a higher paycheck, the only options are to go into administration. It's very strange that the further away you move from the classroom, the more money you make. Shouldn't it be the other way around? Or at least more equitable? I'm not trying to be critical of administrators who perform an important function, but why does a teacher make $50,000 and a vice provost make $200,000? Is there value really that stark?
The last point that Boland makes, and arguably the most challenging and important, is that if we truly want to fix education we need to eradicate poverty. Poverty is the single greatest impediment to learning. Generally, students from under served communities struggle, with exceptions of course, and its incredibly difficult to shepherd them through the class without overwhelming them, and also without boring the more talented students. The real life classroom is not like "Dangerous Minds." In an economically diverse classroom, it's inevitable that many students from poverty stricken backgrounds come to you behind and unprepared, and struggle to keep up. There is only so much we can do. I can hopefully reach a few students every semester and convince them to put in outside work with me to get caught up and stay caught up, but many fall by the wayside. I often question what good I am doing, sometimes thinking that I'm largely just helping students from a privileged background, and hurting students from an under privileged background.
Sadly, I don't think we are making much progress in eliminating poverty. Income inequality, by all sober calculations, seems to be just getting worse. The richest 1% have now captured more of the collective wealth in the country than at any time since the 1920s. More and more Americans are edging closer to working class, dipping into, out of, and back into poverty frequently. I believe we need a second "War on Poverty." We need to get more Americans into the middle class, not just so that their progeny can enjoy more access and success in the classroom, but for the overall health of our democracy.