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Published in Print: February 28, 2001, as Sound Bites vs. Sense

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Sound Bites vs. Sense

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If media reports are to be believed, our schools are full of underprepared, uninspired, and relatively unqualified individuals collecting full-time pay for part-time work.

I do not know a single teacher who doesn't want to be more effective in the classroom. Most are eager, often desperate, to help students become better readers. They agree with the pundits and politicians who insist that success in school and in the workplace depends upon literacy. They sweat to make this happen. But if media reports are to be believed, our schools are full of underprepared, uninspired, and relatively unqualified individuals collecting full-time pay for part-time work. Something is wrong with this picture.

What is "wrong" is that stories about teachers working against the odds—no books, hungry kids, broken desks—don't sell newspapers. Oh, the occasional article about kids winning prizes or a burned-down classroom may appear, but the day-to-day business of teaching children how to read and write just doesn't have enough drama for the six o'clock news: "Every student in Mrs. Jago's class turned in a Frankenstein essay. More at 11." "Sonia Herrera just finished reading Black Boy. Stay tuned for details."

What makes good headlines is bad news. And we need look no further for an example of bad news selling papers than standardized-test scores. Teachers understand why students' reading scores are low, but our explanations don't make for clever sound bites. To tell the full story of these scores, a reporter would have to come into my classroom and see what it is like to work with 36 teenagers, period after period, each child needing that daily special something from the teacher. The reporter would then have to follow me home and watch me correct papers over dinner and then make calls to parents before bed. The reporter would also have to monitor my dreams and record my nightmares about Tony and Serge, who are falling through the cracks, kids I know I am not getting through to and despair that I ever will.

Politicians are calling for strict accountability for teachers and vouchers for parents. They blame unions. They blame teacher-training colleges. They even blame the young people who want to become teachers for not being smart enough.

Teachers understand why students' reading scores are low, but our explanations don't make for clever sound bites.

I blame myself. I went into teaching thinking it would be a relatively easy job, something I could do for a couple of years until I found a husband to support me. What I never figured on was how seductive teaching could be, or how the work itself could be so rewarding that I would never want to leave the classroom, husband or no. One of the things I blame myself for is not doing a better job persuading my best students to become teachers. I am also at fault for not making public more of the things that are working extraordinarily well in California classrooms.

The newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin has written the following: "Grace appears when you don't expect it and have asked for nothing. It comes out of the mists to help people at their work. Grace comes to those who teach."

Every good teacher knows what it feels like to be on the receiving end of this gift of grace. It may not appear on any check stub, but is the best payment of all. Education reporters need to begin spreading the news of this amazing grace.


Carol Jago teaches English at Santa Monica High School in Santa Monica, Calif., and directs the California Reading and Literature Project at the University of California, Los Angeles. She can be reached at jago@gseis.ucla.edu.

Vol. 20, Issue 24, Page 30

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