I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into in 1974 when I was hired at Lincoln-Way Community High School in New Lenox, Illinois. I had done well in college and in my student teaching, but I found that neither one had really prepared me for the job I had taken on. High school definitely wasn’t like college. There was no atmosphere of intellectual excitement, there was little sense of self-discipline, and there was a great deal of sullen adolescent resentment at being a captive audience that I had to deal with. I almost didn’t survive my first year, but older and caring mentors helped pull me through. I was much stronger and more effective my second year; after five years, I felt like an Old Pro. Now, 33 years later, as a genuine Old Pro, I wanted to share some thoughts with the readers of my blog.
First, this job is one hell of a lot harder than people think it is (if you care about being good at it). It requires enormous preparation, a strong will, a tough emotional hide, and constant reading, learning, and personal growth. I was often surprised by how exhausted I was at the end of a school year. A lot of people think teaching is an easy gig—short hours, summers and holidays, off, etc. To them I say: try it. Try excelling at it. Try interacting with people 14 to 18 years old who are going through their own profound personal changes. Try finding ways of taking a small portion of the immense learning of the human species and relating it to teenagers who are often distracted by a hundred other interests and concerns. Try disciplining and motivating these kids. Try adjusting yourself to other teachers and the kids’ parents in what is often a very stressful environment. And then come back to me and tell me how easy it is.
Second, the classroom is an extraordinarily complex environment. Teaching is more of an art than a science, and it takes one a long time to get good at it. (In many ways, as one of my mentors told me my first year, the kids will change you more than you will change them. That’s more true than non-teachers realize.) Classroom interaction is a mixture of communication and social skills unlike anything I have ever experienced. Anyone who’s done it for a while knows what I mean.
Third, the commentators outside of education who regularly castigate and attack the competence of public school teachers don’t know what they’re talking about. The mainstream media often carry a grotesque caricature of American education. Right-wing critics want the public schools dismantled because we supposedly have “failed”. That’s a damned lie. Research like this would shock many of those who have been conditioned to think of American schools as desolate wastelands of ignorance:
By comparing the results of foreign students and American students on tests administered in both nations, and then examining the American students' scores on the U.S. NAEP [National Assessment of Educational Progress], it is possible to reliably estimate how well foreign students would perform on the NAEP.And it turns out that only one-third of those high-flying Swedish kids would be considered proficient readers; the NAEP figure for U.S. fourth-graders was 29 percent. The great majority of the remaining countries would have fewer proficient students than the United States. Using the NAEP standard, no country comes close to having a majority of proficient readers.Under the NAEP standard, Singapore is the only nation in the world to have a majority of its students be proficient in science, and that by a scant 1 percent. Only a handful of countries would have a majority of students proficient in mathematics.
And from my own previous writing:
There are certain people in our society who are dedicated to the destruction of the public school system on ideological grounds. Most often these are conservatives (often religiously motivated) or libertarians, although certain liberal or progressive parents also choose to attack public education. These people have waged an unrelenting propaganda war against the public schools, demonizing teachers unions, demanding vouchers, insisting on ever more tests (with reductions of aid to schools that fall short in such tests, an exercise in perverse “logic” if there ever was one), demanding tax breaks for parochial schools and home schoolers, and generally spreading as many distortions about what we do for a living as possible. These politically motivated attacks have done a lot of damage to our image because a lot of people haven’t been exposed very much to our side of the story. It’s time they were.
The Public Schools Are An Integral Part of American Life. According to the Census Bureau, in October 2003 more than 85% of all American students were in the public schools. When only those not in college were considered, the public schools’ proportion of America’s student body rose to almost 87%. Those who advocate eliminating the entire system are weirdly out of touch with the realities of how big a change they are (foolishly) advocating. The public school system in the United States has been one of the greatest engines for spreading democratic values and social cohesion in American history. It is perhaps the last place in America where people from different neighborhoods, religious backgrounds, social classes, and ethnic groups interact with each other on a regular basis (outside of the armed forces, which contain a much smaller percentage of the population.) It is this massive institution that some propose removing from our nation’s life entirely, at enormous risk to our country’s future.
Americans Do Not Generally See the Public Schools as Failures. Are the American people massively dissatisfied with public education? In 2003 (to stick to the same year for comparison’s sake) the Gallup Organization surveyed Americans about their perceptions of the public schools. When asked about the quality of their own oldest child’s education, 75% indicated they were completely or somewhat satisfied. In 2004 Gallup reported the percentage of those satisfied with the public school education their own children were receiving was even higher than in 2003. Those decrying the public schools are more often simply reflecting their personal biases and not the opinion of the American people. Interestingly, in the same 2003 survey Gallup asked its sample of adults to give a letter grade to the schools nationally and their own local schools. When asked about the nation’s schools, only 26% gave them a grade of A or B, with only 2% giving the nation’s schools an A. But when asked about their local schools, 48% gave them an A or B, with 11% giving them an A. When the grade of C was factored in, 52% rated the nation’s schools as deserving this grade, but only 31% thought their local schools deserved this “average” mark. Why the discrepancy? In my opinion, it shows that the more parents are personally familiar with the school system, the better they like it. The lower perceptions they have of the nation’s schools as a whole have been fostered by the persistent attacks of those who want to bend education to their own purposes.
Are Private Schools Inherently Superior to Public Schools? There are, of course, many data that demonstrate private school students generally perform better on standardized tests than public school students. However, there are some important factors we need to remember: that children of poverty and disrupted homes are more likely to be in public schools; that special needs children are far more likely to be in public special education districts; that public schools cannot, by law, turn away any student; and that public schools are governed by an enormous number of laws and regulations specifying in detail their curricular, disciplinary and custodial boundaries. Further, it can be argued that the parents of private school children, having made a substantial investment in their children’s education, may be more involved in the personal supervision of their kids’ studies. Such variables have a deep impact on the comparisons between public and private schools. In a report published by Phi Delta Kappa on mathematics achievement comparisons between students in public and private schools (Grades 4 and 8) we find the following conclusion:
Our findings suggest that it is time for a critical reexamination of common assumptions regarding the effectiveness of public and private schools. As market-style reforms change the public school landscape, prompting many to call for various forms of privatization of schooling options, it is important to examine the evidence regarding whether private schools are, indeed, more effective than public schools. In our study, once we accounted for the fact that private schools tend to have higher-SES [socioeconomic status] students than public schools, we actually found just the opposite of what was expected: public schools outperformed private schools within each SES quartile.
In private secondary schools the student-teacher ratio can be significantly lower than in public schools. Private high schools have much more latitude in designing their academic programs than public ones. They can more readily remove disruptive students and they can be far more selective than any public high school can be in screening their applicants. 7
Are American Schools and Students Trailing the Rest of the Developed World? Many parents have heard America’s schools compared negatively to those of foreign countries. The Organisation [British spelling] for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the World Bank keep exhaustive statistics on the developed world’s educational systems. Some of the results are revealing, to say the least. Yes, the United States does have some very serious and embarrassing deficiencies. But the picture of an American school system hopelessly behind the rest of our advanced competition is not what the data tell us. The picture is more complex and varied than many would have you believe.
None of this is to argue that we can’t do better. But to assert that American kids are bringing up the rear in the advanced world’s education system is simply wrong.
Fourth. To every teacher reading this, I say: Every kid, in his or her own way, deserves respect, if only for being a human. Each of the kids has a different combination of strengths and weaknesses. In all but the worst of them, there is something positive and respectable. Even the worst kid retains a minimal claim to our consideration. He may be ratty looking, he may be temperamental, he may be obnoxious and about as charming as a hemorrhoid, but he’s still a person. Even when a disruptive or insubordinate kid is being disciplined, there are rules that should be followed that preserve a measure of that kid’s dignity. Respect is a two-way street. We forget that sometimes.
It’s easy to be critical of teenagers. They often look strange. A lot of them are trying out weird hair styles or wearing bizarre clothing. Some of them are inked, pierced, and bejeweled in startling ways. A lot of them are really immature in their behavior. They laugh at stupid things, throw cheap shots and insults at each other, horse around, play dumb tricks on their friends, and get angry at the drop of a hat. Many have an unfortunate propensity toward slacking, viewing mandatory reading as a suggestion and homework as something best avoided until 2 a.m. the night before it’s due. And so very many of them always seem to be consumed by childish, insignificant (in our eyes) little high school problems, the kinds of issues we wrestled with years ago and now see in a less urgent light. They’re worried about making the cheerleading squad or how their makeup looks or whether some girl likes them or whether they did the right math problems. They can make it really tough to take them seriously. But underneath all that is a student in your class, a resident of your district, someone’s intensely beloved son or daughter, and one of the people who will be in charge of things when you’re retired. (Sobering thought, isn’t it?) Respect them and you will help a better grown-up emerge from the chrysalis of high school.
Every single kid knows something about life that we don’t. We might never have lived with a chronic, uncontrolled alcoholic. Some of them have. We might never have seen our parents split up; a lot of them have. We might have lived in the same area all our lives; some of them have lived in a dozen different states. And a kid’s life experiences don’t even have to be anything as dramatic as these examples to teach us something. Each one of these kids has seen life from eyes through which we can never see. Part of respecting them is comprehending that. If we are open to the experience, each one of these kids can broaden and deepen our definition of what it means to be a person.
Every kid must find his or her own way, and no kid will ever do it exactly the way any other kid does. It’s something isn’t it, watching them become their own men and women. They’re trying out a lot of new roles, almost as if they were trying on outfits. They’re pretty unsure and tentative in filling those roles most of the time. But they manage. The good news is that the vast majority of them will make it through high school all right and will go on to new challenges after it’s over. (You have to keep reminding them that yes, there is indeed life after high school.) Every young man or young woman who passes through our schools successfully did it in his or her own unique way. Their ways may baffle or appall us, but in the end, sometimes against all the odds, they measure up. If you had them when they were freshmen and you see them again when they’re seniors, you’re often amazed at how they’ve changed. Each of them went through those changes in a way unlikely to be duplicated exactly by anyone. There’s something very reassuring about that, to me. It speaks to the resiliency and adaptability of the human spirit.
At the end of my last class ever I tried to keep it together but I couldn’t. I was telling the kids in my 7th hour that my family was first in my heart, but that throughout my career the young people I had known and loved had been my second family. That’s when I lost it. It was so strange. In one sense, I had been waiting for this moment for years, but in another I found it almost unbearably hard. I was no longer going to be Mr. Miller. I was no longer going to define myself as a high school teacher. And I was no longer going to get to meet any more of those young people who had sustained me, exasperated me, exhilarated me, frustrated me, amused me, and given my life its central purpose over the years. I felt a mixture of relief, joy, sorrow, and gratitude at that moment, and the emotional impact of letting go of all I had known for more than three decades overwhelmed me. I can’t really describe it, but if you’ve experienced this yourself, you know what I mean.
So I am retired now. I’m moving out of state. I am beginning a new life. I hope to tutor at least part time and work on my book about the nature of human history. I’ll watch my grandchildren grow up (their mother and they coming with us), I’ll continue to cherish my remarkable wife, and I’ll try to find a new way to define myself. But I’ll always count myself lucky. I got to tell something of the story of the human experience on this planet to more than 4,000 young men and women. I can’t think of any way I could have spent my life better than that. And I will forever be proud that I was public school teacher, a small part of that great host of millions of teachers who love and care about the young people of America. I will no longer be in the classroom.
So-called "abstinence only" education, that is. It's a complete failure, but that doesn't stop the Idiot Right from pushing it. New evidence:
A recent study commissioned by Congress concluded that abstinence-only programs are completely ineffective in preventing or delaying teenagers from having sexual intercourse. Nor do they lower unwanted pregnancy rates or lessen the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.
The solution? Give young people accurate and honest information about sex, including information about contraception.
We can choose to live in some kind of idealized dream world where teenagers are chaste and studious and young people are imbued with "virtue"--or we can live in the world as it actually is. I choose to live in the latter.
Particularly about the diseased press corps that in 2000 practically handed the presidency to an unqualified little waste of skin named George W. Bush in preference to the immensely talented and qualified Al Gore, who would have been one of America's great presidents. Somerby continues his devastating critique here. And don't forget his incomparable archives, either. He has, over the years, presented a thorough and utterly damning case for the proposition that the national press deliberately and relentlessly lied about and smeared Al Gore from 1997 onward, an attack that made the election of 2000 close enough for the right wingers to steal.
There are few things more absurd and wildly dishonest than the current right-wing effort to disavow George W. Bush because Bush isn't a "real" conservative. Hmmm. That's funny. When Bush was riding high the rightwingers embraced him fanatically and enthusiastically. They shouted about his conservative virtues from the rooftops. But now that Bush is widely hated and reviled, they're falling all over themselves to repudiate him. The inimitable Glenn Greenwald is having none of it--and he nails this new right-wing garbage hard:
But it is now clear that Bush's own son takes far more after his father's old boss than he does his own father, at least politically speaking. From tax cuts (and deficits, alas), to his personal conviction on aborrtion (sic), to aligning America with the historical tide of liberty in the world, Georrge (sic) W. Bush has proved that he's a Reaganite, not a "Bushie." He may not be a natural heir to Reagan, but that's the point. The party is all Reaganite now. What better sign that this is now truly and totally the Gipper's Party than the obvious conversion of George Bush's own son?
Liberalism didn't win anything yesterday; Republicanism lost. Conservatism was nowhere to be found except on the Democratic side. . . . Conservatism did not lose, Republicanism lost last night. Republicanism, being a political party first, rather than an ideological movement, is what lost last night.
Reagan was right just as George W. Bush is today, and I really believe that if Reagan had been able he would have put his hand on Bush's shoulder and say to him, "Stay the course, George." I really believe that.
With nearly two years remaining in his presidency, Bush is alone. In half a century, I have not seen a president so isolated from his own party in Congress -- not Jimmy Carter, not even Richard Nixon as he faced impeachment.
[Bush is] a president who may be more basically conservative than Ronald Reagan.
National Review's Rich Lowry, January 28, 2007 (Bush approval rating - 33%): It is, in all seriousness, it is a distressing and depressing time to be a conservative. I'm reminded of the old saying by Mao -- things are always darkest before they go completely black. In recent years, we have watched a Republican Congress disgrace itself with its association with scandal, with its willful lack of fiscal discipline, and with its utter disinterest in the reforms that America needs. And at the same time, we watched a Republican President abet or passively accept the excesses of his Congressional party and, more importantly, fail to take the steps - until perhaps now - fail to take the steps to win a major foreign war. . . .
In his bid for reelection, George W. Bush deserves the support of conservatives. . . . Bush has shown evidence of being able to learn from his mistakes. We have made political strides in Iraq. . . . Bush deserves conservative support, as well, on domestic issues. . . It has been a long and difficult four years, largely as a result of events not of Bush's making. For conservatives, however, backing Bush's reelection should be an easy decision.
Folks, isn't it obvious that these conservative con artists are trying to have it both ways? They are the ones who foisted the worst president history on us, and then, when this president's conservative philosophy failed--and failed utterly--they argue that he isn't really one of them! I swear, these people have more nerve, more sheer chutzpah, than any group of people I've ever seen. Don't let them get away with it. The Right chose to live with Bush; now, let it die with him, as well.