Education Commentary

The Fiddler’s Playing, But Nobody’s Dancing

By Freda Schwartz — May 26, 1999 6 min read
Twenty-five years of teaching in New York City high schools qualifies me to draw a few conclusions some researchers might never reach.

It seems as if just about everybody knows there’s something wrong with the way American schoolchildren are being educated, and lots of people not only know exactly what’s wrong--they also know exactly how to fix it. Unfortunately, they don’t all know the same ineluctable remedy; they all know different ones. Many heralds of The One True Path to Educational Reform generally have some ax to grind, some project they have lovingly nurtured and enthusiastically researched, and now authoritatively tout. Meanwhile, politicians, pundits, and other sideline observers continue to cluck their disapproval, as if the current generation is the collective victim of some giant institutional blunder on the part of an entire, evil education industry. We teachers must be doing something wrong.

OK. I’m a teacher. Mea culpa. After 25 years of standing in front (and navigating the aisles) of New York City high school classrooms, I still call myself an English teacher. It may be more politically correct--and perhaps even more accurate--to say “language arts” teacher, but what I teach is the English language. How to use it, how skilled practitioners use it, how to unravel its precious mysteries in literary classics, how to distinguish between its use in informing and its use in opining, how to savor the delight of poetic imagery. When I started teaching high school, I had been given to understand that my students had already been taught how to decipher the basic phonemes used to communicate the written word. As the vast majority of my pupils at that time were reading at or below 5th grade level, I soon realized I had been misled.

I talk to colleagues in other schools and read the journals; I try to get as much of “the big picture” as a full-time classroom teacher can. I think both the macro- and the micro-perspectives are important. It’s probably impossible for anyone to get accurate perspectives in both of those areas, but it doesn’t hurt to try.

The high school in which I teach has an ethnically diverse student population. In addition to the standard representative American-born students, we have students from all over the world, in significant numbers--students from India, Pakistan, China, Korea, Egypt, Russia, and from various Balkan states; we have Hispanic students from different parts of Latin America; and we also have students from other parts of this country. Our school is truly a melting pot, with over 3,000 students.

Although the school has a good academic reputation, and has been named a “School of Excellence,” we are not a specialized high school; while we do have our honors programs, we are a regularly zoned school, and we do not exclude students with poor academic skills. If it is at all possible to combine macro- with micro-perspective, I suppose this is as close as one could get.

Does this make me some sort of expert on educational reform for America in the 21st century? Probably not, but 25 years of teaching English in the New York City high schools qualifies me to draw a few conclusions that some researchers with other credentials might never reach.

So what have I learned? One important lesson is that different pupils have different learning styles, just as different teachers have different teaching styles. Consequently, the same student can learn more from teacher A than from teacher B, while another student can learn more from teacher B, although both teachers are competent and dedicated professionals. Since it’s not likely that 34 students will all have the same learning style (34 is the contractual cap in New York City high school academic classes), the fewer students we have in a classroom, the better the odds of striking the right chemistry for successful learning.

Add now to that mix a student (or two, or three) who has been diagnosed as having one or more learning disabilities and is “receiving Resource Room Services as per [her] Individualized Education Program.” We’ll get a memo from our special education department that student X is mandated to have certain modifications made to his or her testing environment: “Time extended 2X, Administer Exam in Special Locale, Questions Read Aloud to Student, Directions Read and Reread Aloud” (quoted from an actual memo I received). In a classroom with over 20 other students, not all such modifications are usually possible.

While we are on the subject of the logistically unreasonable, we can also add to the equation the physical limitations to the professional environment, such as being assigned to teach in a room--assuming all one’s classes are in one room--which is in use by other teachers for the rest of the day, so there is no opportunity for monitoring inventory, setting up materials, and basic maintenance of the environment. Should we wish to call parents from school, we must share the one telephone in the departmental office with about 30 colleagues and hope that when we do get our hands on the telephone (during our prep, professional, or lunch period), there will be an open line out of the building. Things like torn window shades, faulty plumbing, noisy radiators, and various other distractions are minor annoyances compared to the assault on our professional sensibilities by bureaucratic dicta from people who are no doubt looking only at the “Big Picture.”

For some reason, American-born students in general tend to have a dislike for any activity that involves reading or original writing.

But wait! (as they say in the television mail-order promotions) There’s more! There is, in fact, the most important obstacle of all. There is the resistance to accepting the responsibilities of scholarship, so deeply ingrained in the typical American student. This is where the perspective of the multinational student body can shed some light. Time and again have I seen this sharp contrast between American-born and foreign-born students. For some reason, American-born students in general tend to have a dislike--even a contempt--for any activity that involves reading or original writing. Among the foreign-born students, there seems to be a basic respect for and understanding of the obligations of a student. Whether you enjoy it or not, whether you’d rather be at the mall, whether you have more entertaining things you could be doing, you know what you should be doing, and there is no questioning the need to do it. If you resent doing it, it doesn’t matter; you will read the chapters, you will write the homework, you will proofread what you’ve written, and you will make sure you’ve done the best job you could do.

Are these statements universally true? Is it axiomatic that American-born students have contempt for all things educational and foreign-born students have respect for same? I speak in generalizations, of course. But I fear we have spawned a prosperous apathy in our industrially, technologically advanced Land of the Free. Our children have learned that they don’t have to work hard to obtain the blessings of liberty (one of which is a free education). Not only do they take those blessings for granted; they’ve never known what it’s like to have them threatened. Heaven help them and us if ever they are; will they be astute enough to discern the threat?

What can we do about this dilemma? I’m afraid all the money a burgeoning federal bureaucracy can throw at it will not solve the problem. I’m afraid all the slick buzz-worded proposals from Big Picture visionaries will not solve the problem. I’m afraid imposing tougher national standards after the formative years have passed will not solve the problem. I’m afraid that before we can do anything bureaucratically to solve the problem, we have to find a way as a people to recapture the childhood enchantment of discovering the world of books. It cannot be introduced in the K-12 venue, not for maximum effectiveness. Mothers and fathers must act in the formative years.

If mothers and fathers are absent from the educational equation during the very first years of their children’s lives, then what can we anticipate? How much longer can we call ourselves the Land of the Free?

Freda Schwartz has taught high school English in New York City for 25 years.