Cumberland Times-News

September 22, 2012

It works well in some places, but not others

Jim Goldsworthy, Columnist
Cumberland Times-News

— I once went to a party that several teachers attended, and at one point was on the verge of collectively asking them, “If you dislike it so much, why don’t you quit and find something else to do for a living?”

 However, I found it wise to say nothing. (So, I learned later, did a couple of other teachers who didn’t agree with them.)

If they had asked me, “Well, what do you know about education?” I don’t know how well my answer would have gone over.

I’d have told them I was a student for 16 years, and I keep up with what’s going on in education. Many of my friends have been teachers, as have some of my relatives — including my mother and father, and my dad went on to be a high school principal.

All of the above people have talked to me about it, and I have listened. (When people ask why I didn’t become a teacher, I say it’s because I lived with two of them for 25 years. I have a pretty good idea of what the job is like.)

Other than that — plus the fact that some of the people I most admire are teachers — I don’t know a damn thing about education.

It would be interesting to hear what my late parents would say about the state of education in America today ... particularly when it comes to things like the Chicago teachers’ strike.

There are places in America where public school education is succeeding wildly, while elsewhere — like Chicago — the same cannot be said.

Salary was not a sticking point in Chicago, where the average teachers’ salary is $76,000 and they were offered a pay raise. That might seem like a lot of money to people in our area, but maybe not to people who live in a big city.

There also is the question of whether teachers or any other public employees should be allowed to strike because of the public’s reliance on them. (President Franklin D. Roosevelt was one who believed they should not.) I’ll leave it to other people to argue about that.

Proposed teacher performance evaluations based on students’ test scores are a major issue nationwide. Although 80 or 90 percent of Chicago’s teachers are rated excellent or superior, only 55 percent of their students ever graduate. Something in that doesn’t add up.

People in just about every other profession are evaluated on their performance — even legislators, who are booted out of office if their constituents become dissatisfied. (The same thing happens to pastors.)

If I don’t do my job at the newspaper to my the satisfaction of my editor and publisher, they’ll find someone who will. And so on.

Shouldn’t teachers be held accountable in similar fashion? Not entirely. There are too many factors they can’t control, regardless of their dedication to the job.

I wouldn’t envy any teacher who has to work under the conditions that are likely to be found in an inner-city school. The physical plants are frequently deplorable.

Some of my friends tell me they love teaching, but other things my parents never had to contend with — such as the modern bureaucracy and never-ending reports and paperwork  — are what get them down.

My parents said they couldn’t think of anything they would rather have done than be teachers, but they also believed they got out of it at the right time, just as things were starting to change ... in 1971.

Dad and his fellow principals were the captains of their ships. What few bureaucrats there were trusted them to do their jobs properly and left them alone to do so.

The man who was school superintendent a few years back told my father, “Jim, you and the others couldn’t be principals today. You’d all be in jail within six months.” Dad agreed.

That said, Dad and his fellow principals were for the most part loved and respected by the students, parents and teachers and virtually everyone else in their communities.

A friend who retired from Dad’s old job told me he had enjoyed it, but “I wish I’d been allowed to run that school the way he did.”

What about the students? How much should we hold them accountable for their success or failure?

It must be incredibly challenging to teach someone who has no interest in learning or isn’t able to learn. This hasn’t changed since I was in school. I’ve heard my parents and their teacher friends talk about it.

It’s one thing to be the offspring of a well-off family who goes to a first-class school that’s everything one would want it to be ... a veritable launching pad (as a teacher I knew once described his school) for the future.

It’s another thing to be born into a situation where poverty, hopelessness, failure and dependency abound.

Schools in places where the economy is good are usually good schools. Where the economy is poor, the schools are likely to be failing. Matters not whether it’s inner-city Chicago or the impoverished coal fields of West Virginia.

Some kids I knew came from families who didn’t have — as my grandfather used to say — a pot to (relieve themselves) in.

However, they were determined to get an education, find a job and work themselves upward, to make better lives for their children than they had. It could be done then, and it still can be done.

A successful chef who was born in an inner city said he figured out early on that if he stayed where he was, he’d have only a prison cell or an early grave to look forward to.

So he wangled his way into a culinary academy and worked as hard as he could to get where he is today ... while at the same time looking back to where he came from, in the hopes of finding kids like himself to help.

Some of my friends go several times a year to places like the one this chef came from, to try to help young people a few at a time.

They show them that another life exists out there, and what it’s like, and how they might be able to get there someday.

Whether they realize it, they’re teachers, too. What gives me hope is that America has many others like them ... just not nearly enough, and the size of the task they face is staggering.

How do you fix a system that works well in some places, but poorly in others, particularly when it’s hideously expensive to begin with?

As is the case with too many other questions, there’s no single answer.