I just quit my job as a public high school English teacher. I taught in some of the worst academic and vocational schools in New York City and, most recently, in a high school reputed to be one of the best academic schools in the Midwest. Lately, I became more embarrassed than ever to admit I was a high school teacher. More to the point, I became unwilling to be a part of a dysfunctional system that refuses to admit it isn’t working. If something as important as children’s education weren’t at stake, I’d probably be willing to hang in there and keep my mouth shut. But as a teacher, I’ve taken all that I can, and it’s now time for me to speak out.
With very few exceptions, I watched for 14 years as student after student entered and left high school having learned next to nothing during his or her four-year term. And the problem is not in someone else’s backyard, not in someone else’s school district: It’s systemic. My experience has convinced me that if the purpose of the public schools were to prevent children from acquiring an education, they could not do a better job than they are right now, at this very moment, in classrooms all across the nation.
Ours is an educational system that labels children learning-disabled and then calls for more tax dollars to remediate the problem it created. It is an anti-intellectual, morally bankrupt system whose values-clarification classes and bogus drug- and sex-education programs contribute to the very addictions they sanctimoniously claim to solve. It is a system that crushes our children’s intellectual curiosity and then demands they learn anyway.
Not everyone learns best the same way. Yet the public school bureaucracy largely continues to present students with only one way of learning. To keep teaching children the same way when that way is not working is a form of institutional madness. In terms of our children, it is blatant child abuse.
Good parents raise healthy children ready to leave home and live independently. Likewise, good teachers work to produce students who no longer need them to carry on the business of their own education. Good teaching, in short, largely entails getting out of people’s way. Bureaucracies, on the other hand, become bigger and bigger, demand more and more, produce less and less, and all the time appear to be more and more essential.
As Brookings Institution scholar John Chubb has recently noted, education administrators have a major stake--their jobs--in maintaining public education as it is currently organized. But more to the point, the educational bureaucracy has an even greater stake--its very existence--in maintaining the status quo. My experience has pointed to one conclusion: The more the education bureaucracy participates in reform the more likely it is to fail. Put simply, the educational bureaucracy will always transform the best reform ideas into models of its own bureaucratic mediocrity. What goes into the educational bureaucracy as meaningful reform will always come out as more of the same. It always has, and it always will. To think otherwise is to deceive ourselves and warrant the schools to perpetuate their institutional lunacy.
Our public educational system is a monopoly founded on antiintellectualism and bogus theories of learning. As such, real education has always been its enemy, the single greatest threat to its very existence, a persistent reminder of its failed mission to teach our nation’s children. Is it any wonder, therefore, that the educational bureaucracy is so resistant to change? Real education would put the childdetention centers we call schools out of business. Real education would close schools of education by forcing real subjects to be taught in them. Real education, in short, would force the educational bureaucrats to look for real work outside the public schools, for what possible function could they serve in a system that suddenly began teaching children?
How, then, can we realistically expect reform to work? Isn’t it ingenuous to expect the educational bureaucracy to make itself obsolete by urging the kind of reform our schools really need--the kind that would in effect break its own stranglehold on mis-education? It is simply not in the interest of the educational establishment to change, and it is politically naive to believe that this or any other bureaucracy will voluntarily selfdestruct. Reform in the hands of the educational bureaucracy is simply another way to legitimize status quo school systems or reinforce even greater central planning and bureaucratization.
When Omaha, Neb., my hometown, was recently chosen as one of the nation’s first America 2000 cities, the recognition was not perceived as a first step in the necessary reform of a school system that is largely failing to serve its students. The designation became an endorsement of our schools. The educational establishment has been telling us all along that the schools are doing a great job. The Omaha 2000 imprimatur now proved it: Would Omaha have been chosen as one of the nation’s model educational communities if it didn’t already have a school system that was the envy of the nation? The press did all it could to encourage this delusion: Not only had we arrived, we were told, but we had in fact been there all along. Little now is brewing to make anything much different.
So, I can’t help but think that if the majority of our children are not learning in the public schools, we, as educators, are obliged to invent places that will permit and even encourage them to learn. Pulling out of a system that hurts the people it claims to be helping may now be a necessary first step in bringing about real reform. The cruelest injustice would be to continue to expect our children to succeed in a system that will always fail to educate them. To stand by and watch this happen is unconscionable: teachers, of all people, ought to know better. We see it happening every day.
As I cleaned out my desk, one image persisted--a long discarded image: the independent child, reading a book, a child free from “media centers,’' “computer classrooms,’' “cooperative-learning strategies,’' “whole language,’' “outcome-based instruction,’' “writing across the curriculum,’' “peer tutoring,’' “strategic planning,’' “resource rooms,’' “thinking skills,’' and all the rest in the latest stream of intellectually vacuous educational gadgets and fads. The schools, and now the schools’ appropriation of reform, have for too long come between our children and their texts, whether the text be a book or the text of their world. So, perhaps it is now time for each of us to take responsibility for our own education, as well as for the education of our children. The schools could not have done a worse job. I can’t imagine that a group of essential parents and other educators couldn’t at least make a good start.
A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 1992 edition of Teacher as I Quit