DEAR STUART BERGER:
As the new Baltimore County superintendent of schools, you are about to become my boss. Consider yourself extremely fortunate, indeed, to have me and thousands of other dedicated teachers like me working for you.
Are you beginning to get the idea that a lot of us are fed up with teacher-bashing? Are you beginning to see that we are sick and tired of so-called "educators," people who haven't taught in a classroom in at least 10 years, thinking that they know all the cures for a school system's ills? And are you beginning to realize that you are not the only one who went into education "to do something for the children"? If you can answer in the affirmative to these three questions, then we may be able to communicate.
Frankly speaking, we don't like what we are reading about you in the local papers. You appear to be a person who is arrogant and dogmatic, one with some rather simplistic answers to some complex questions.
Let's start with your fundamental belief that "if the kids aren't growing, the teachers aren't doing a good job." That statement sounds very reasonable -- on paper. But let's get practical. Explain this recent phenomenon that I experienced in my classroom: I taught a unit on the American Revolution (for the 22nd consecutive year, incidentally). I thought I had done an outstanding job communicating the major facts and concepts to my students, and indeed I had -- to five of the 21.
On completion of the unit, I administered a rather routine test. Five students got A's, while the other 16 did very poorly. According to your philosophy, I was the one who flunked. The majority of my students did not "grow."
I would willingly accept the responsibility for my own failure here were it not for one very surprising fact: All of the students who got A's were boys and girls who have been in this country for fewer than two years; none is fluent in English, and none has ever studied American history. However, all of the 16 students who did poorly were born in the United States; all are quite fluent in English and all have studied American history before.
If I can take five immigrants and successfully teach them, despite their language and cultural handicaps, am I to be judged a failure because their 16 American-born counterparts, who had every reason to do well, were too lazy to study?
According to you, "The primary responsibility for the educational process is with the teachers." Once again this sounds very reasonable -- on paper. But, going back to my little case study, the difference between success and failure on my American history test seems to have been the difference between those who were self-motivated (or parent-motivated) and those who weren't.
I am a "constant" in that classroom, but I have little or no control over those many other "variables" that affect the outcome of a student's performance (variables like poor home environment, drug and alcohol abuse and parental neglect). Please, hold me accountable for the things I can be held accountable for, and make me live up to some very high standards. But don't demoralize me by holding me responsible for factors over which I have no control.
I hope the press is wrong about you, Dr. Berger. It disturbs me to read some of the autocratic views that are attributed to you. What we don't need in Baltimore County is divisiveness; what we do need is unity: you, the parents and us, all making decisions together.
Dorothy Dowling teaches eighth-grade social studies at Parkville Middle School in Baltimore County.