The Urgency of Education Reform
Confession: In some ways, I feel somewhat under-qualified to write this column. Since education reform is such a divisive topic, I want to get this out there right up front—I don’t know everything there is to know about teaching high school English, coaching varsity softball, or running a school. I am an alumna of Teach For America (TFA), meaning that I had very little training prior to beginning my teaching career. Additionally, I’m no longer a high school teacher: due to illness, I left my school during my third year of teaching, and I’m now an MFA candidate, so the students I currently work with are college-aged. On the scale of teaching knowledge, I am still a novice. Most importantly, my views represent my experience as an inner-city high school English teacher in Los Angeles, which I’m sure was very different from your experiences as students and educators. I am not attempting to speak for all teachers everywhere.
However, while I don’t necessarily feel qualified to speak about the act of teaching, I do feel qualified to address the topic of education reform in the United States. The bulk of my teaching career occurred at Locke High School, which has been in the news frequently over the last three years because, in 2008, it became the first public high school in America to be taken over by a charter management organization (CMO). I saw firsthand what has now become the focus of the educational reform movement. I saw some things go right. I saw a lot of things go wrong.
There’s been a lot of blame going on in the education world lately, but what you have to understand about education reform is that everyone is overworked. In the nine-person English department at Locke High School, three of us were coaches, five of us had finished or were working on graduate degrees, two of us served as department co-chairs, and three of us were mentors for non-athletic extracurricular activities. If you’ve done the math and realized that that adds up to more than nine people, it’s not just because I’m bad at math. None of us were just teachers, and many of us had multiple responsibilities outside of the classroom. In my second year at Locke, I taught two preps, coached softball, got my master’s in education, and served as a teacher liaison for the UCLA IDEA project. As a Teach For America corps member, I was also required to attend weekend professional development sessions.
We all sacrificed something. Midway through my second year of teaching, I stopped hanging out with my friends—during softball season, there just wasn’t time. On the administrative side, the sacrifices looked different: teachers didn’t get observed as often as they should have, policies were sometimes decided last-minute, and deadlines were rarely enforced.
For those of you wondering why we didn’t somehow cut back on our load, I’ll say this: these kids’ lives are in a constant state of flux in just about every way, and sometimes teachers are their only lifelines. Cutting back on our responsibilities would have meant cutting back on our support for our students, and for all of us, that was just unthinkable.
I’m not writing this column to name-call, muckrake, or exercise vendettas. I’m writing this column because the debate on education reform has been taken from students, parents, and teachers and moved into the arena of politicians and businessmen. If I do call people and organizations out on what I see as deficits, it’s because there’s no time for politeness and politics. Those in charge of educating our nation’s forgotten children don’t have time to fumble about until they find the right formula. Getting education right and making education fair is far too urgent.