January 1990

This Issue
Vol. 01, Issue 04

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When Larry Sawyer talks about public schools, he sounds like a corporate vice president who has been asked to slash spending and show some results--or else. Schools, he says, are like bloated bureaucracies; if you want to change them, you have to nudge them until you get a "positive outcome.'' Students, he believes, must be "productive'' in order to become "net assets'' rather than "net liabilities.''
For many teachers, censorship is not just something that appears in textbooks' discussions of the First Amendment. It is a very real, and sometimes frightening, problem. Consider what happened last year to a teacher in a small rural community in Georgia when she assigned Arthur Miller's classic play, Death of a Salesman, to her 9th grade honors English class.
In 1981, Charlie Nichols, a 6th grade choral-music teacher in Nicholasville, Ky., decided it was time to go back to school. If he could earn his Ph.D., he would be eligible for an impressive salary increase--up to $8,000 a year.
High school teacher Mary Bicouvaris walks into her Newport News, Va., classroom each morning and wonders where her students went. As she looks around at the many sleepy faces, some scribbling down last-minute homework answers, she instead sees what she calls, "little business people.'' She sees young girls dressed not in comfortable jeans and sneakers for the school day ahead, but in the dresses, heels and jewelry they must wear for their after-school jobs behind cosmetics counters and in clothing stores. She knows others have food-service uniforms tossed in their lockers for the burger grilling, table wiping and trash hauling they'll be doing as soon as the last afternoon bell rings.shrills And she knows many of them won't be giving her, or her lessons another thought until much later that night, when, the clock straining past midnight, they "try to squeeze an hour or two of education in before they fall asleep,'' she ruefully notes.
The Public School Academy and the Chiron Middle School in Minneapolis are two examples, among thousands, of business involvement in schools--involvement that has escalated to unprecedented levels in the past decade.
Resolved: "That the American Revolution was an unjustifiable mutiny against reasonable and legitimate authority.''
Like so many teachers, I spent much of my first day on the job asking myself, "What am I doing here?'' But it was more than the usual first-day jitters. The school where I teach, Rosewood High School, is patrolled by armed guards and is located behind fences and razor wire on Rikers Island, a complex of grimy city prisons adjacent to noisy LaGuardia Airport in Queens, N.Y. It is one of three high schools on the island, but the only one for women. The students are either awaiting trial or serving sentences of up to one year.
Two major business groups are lining up support for a plan to create a system that will assess the skills of high school graduates and make the results available to potential employers, a development that has wide-ranging implications for schools.