Rearranging the deck chairs jTC

MIKE BOWLER

April 17, 1993|By MIKE BOWLER

Thirty years ago, I was a first-year teacher in a public high school on Long Island, N.Y. I earned $5,400, and I worked hard for it.

But I was a fraud. My teachers' college training hadn't prepared me for the rigors of working in a crowded suburban classroom with students of widely varying ability.

I discovered early that teaching is a lonely craft. The only time I saw other adults on the job was at lunch. My colleagues were willing to help me find my way, but they had pressing problems of their own.

I was required to teach American history, though I hadn't studied American history since high school. When I failed two students, the principal (the school's former football coach) changed their grades to passing, explaining, "Here at _____ we don't flunk kids." The school had five academic "tracks," and most of the slow kids and minorities were in the lowest track, called "general." My colleagues advised me that I could easily handle my one "general" class by throwing out a slab of raw meat each day.

But I muddled through and eventually learned something about the art of teaching. I received superior ratings. I should have been sued for malpractice.

And that was well into a period of great national education reform, a movement that apparently hadn't reached my school.

The Soviet Union had launched the first of its Sputniks only six years before; "Why Johnny Can't Read" had been published only eight years previously. The federal government (spurred by Vice President Richard Nixon, who convinced President Eisenhower and his Cabinet) had committed to shoring up the public schools.

(Ironically, I was doing my part to win the Cold War. Although I had been an English major in college, I had a loan provided by the National Defense Education Act, part of which could be "forgiven" if I went into teaching.)

Thirty years later, has anything changed? There's a lot of activity, and there are many heroic teachers on the front lines. But not enough has changed inside the classroom. Teaching is still not a genuine profession, although salaries have gotten more respectable. It remains a lonely craft; teachers still make do with what they have -- some brilliantly, some incompetently.

And especially in the cities, teachers cling to the rocks like barnacles, waiting for the next superintendent and his wave of "reforms." Meanwhile, many teach pretty much as teachers taught in 1963 (and as their teachers taught them).

Outside of the classroom things have changed. We have a new enemy, Japan, and we fear not its military threat but its economic might. And urban education has deteriorated badly over the third of a century. City kids are surrounded by failure -- of families, of neighborhoods, of institutions. And, yes, of schools.

And so we have another great reform movement, this one of some 10 years' duration. (School reform in the U.S. seems to be triggered by foreign threats. The three biggest movements of this half-century have followed World War II, Sputnik and the Japanese economic challenge.)

This period of reform was touched off, at least in part, by "A Nation at Risk," the report of a federal commission issued 10 years ago April 26, halfway through the first Reagan administration. Short and alarmist, written to attract media attention, "A Nation at Risk" warned that American schools were threatened by a "rising tide of mediocrity."

The commission didn't see that tide as a threat to the cities, to the poor and weak in America. Rather, it said, poor schools jeopardized the nation's "unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science and technological innovation."

The report's prescriptions were few and simple: emphasize the "new basics," increase standards, raise expectations, lengthen the school day and year, assign more homework, increase teachers' salaries and make them demonstrate competence.

It will be fascinating to see how the education experts and pundits grade the effort. Certainly a good deal has happened in the name of "reform" over the decade. Most states, with Maryland as one of the leaders, are raising standards for both students and teachers. At least, they are making them take more tests.

But not enough has happened in the classroom, where it counts in the end. Teachers are still muddling through, just as I did 30 years ago, while outside, the cities crumble and, against the rising tide, the educators rearrange the deck chairs.

Mike Bowler edits The Evening Sun's Other Voices page.

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