How our public schools are failing us

Roundup
tags: education, Texas, public school, history crisis



Robert Zaretsky is a professor at the Honors College at the University of Houston. His most recent book is A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning. He is currently teaching a course marking the centenary of World War I, and recently reviewed new books about the war for the Los Angeles Review of Books.‬

This year, as we do every Thanksgiving, my brother-in-law Ryan and I traded war stories over a table laden with food and drink. Our front lines are in neither Iraq nor Afghanistan, but deep in the heart of Houston. Our stories are drawn from the stuff of our lives as teachers, soldiers in the education wars unfolding in the classrooms of our nation.

Ryan and I fight our battles in different theaters. I teach history at a university in Houston while Ryan teaches English at a nearby high school. Both of our respective institutions, of relatively recent birth and still busily inventing their school traditions, pride themselves on spanking-new football stadiums and high-tech classrooms. But this year, as in year’s past, our experiences were dramatically asymmetrical. When I confide my anxiety that I have fewer than 10 students in one of the two classes I teach twice a week, Ryan shares his relief that he has fewer than 30 in one of the six classes he teaches every day. After I express my impatience with students who do not read deeply, Ryan tells me about students who cannot read at all. When I have the ill grace to bemoan earning $30,000 a year less than the national average for full professors, Ryan smiles wanly, too gracious to reply that this gap represents more than two-thirds of his own yearly salary. While I worry about the mad spawning of administrators at my school, Ryan confesses his hope to become an administrator—if only to escape the grim impasse in which he finds himself.

Simply put, Ryan is in the trenches and I am not. Like many volunteers who rally to their nations’ colors in times of need, my brother-in-law was an idealist when he signed up. An indifferent student in high school, Ryan fell in love with literature at university; as a teacher, he hoped to reach students who resembled his younger, bored self. More than a decade on the front lines, however, has pulverized that idealism. Just as all war gives the lie to words like “honor,” “duty” and “sacrifice,” so too has teaching undermined Ryan’s belief that few professions are more honorable than teaching and his willingness to make financial sacrifices on behalf of duty to a literate citizenry. His experiences have trumped all of that. I do not know if it’s true that there are no atheists in foxholes, but I have good reason to believe there are few if any idealists still working in Ryan’s school.


How could there be? Take the example of 1914: Once that war of movement ossified into one of stasis, generals and politicians increasingly turned to technological breakthroughs to snap the stalemate. From poison gas to dirigibles, tanks to flamethrowers, one silver bullet after another was fired during World War I. Most were duds, and some were worse. Poison gas drifts over one’s own lines, tanks become firetraps and flamethrowers turn their users into Roman candles.

While no such horrors have been visited on Ryan and his colleagues, they are casualties nonetheless of the same kind of magical thinking. Like the mustachioed generals of yesteryear, Ryan’s school administrators insist that technology can win hearts and minds. To this end, Brian and his students were armed this year with Dell tablets. The administration’s ambition to go paperless, which carried a $17 million price tag, has turned into a fiasco worthy of the Battle of the Somme. Every day, Ryan teaches six classes, each of which runs 49 minutes. This race against time, thanks to the Dells, has become an obstacle course. Inevitably, students forgot to charge their tablets, or forgot to save their material or simply forgot to bring their tablets. Other students were plagued by software problems, while some of the more privileged, scornful of the Dells, refused to use them. After three months of mayhem and muddle, Ryan’s students have tabled the tablets and are again, like students in far more advanced Finland and Japan, using paper and pen...




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