Dear Oprah: How to REALLY Fix Public Education

Dear Oprah,

Let me tell you about my week.

Every morning, the alarm buzzes at 5:45 AM. I groan and toss for ten extra minutes and roll out of bed.  By 6:35, I’m on my way to school; by 6:50, I’m in my classroom.

School doesn’t start until 7:45, but I get to school early so I can help students.  Except they never come in.  It’s research paper time, and many students would benefit from having an extra 45 minutes with me, but when they come to class, I hear the excuses:

“My mom/dad/guardian won’t bring me early.”

“I need my sleep.”

“I forgot.”

“I don’t care if I pass junior English.”

So I do what I can—dividing my time between 30 students in 47 minutes.  Thanks goodness, I said to myself yesterday, for Alice and Emily in my 2nd and 5th hour classes, who are ahead enough that they helped the other kids around them.  It gave me an extra 2 minutes to work with the student who just transferred into my class last week—halfway through the quarter.

Every class period, students are more interested in what happened on Jersey Shore than they are in adequately preparing for their speeches. 

This afternoon, I had a defense at the ready in case my absence at the pep rally was noticed; I was allowing a couple of students to make up tests.

At 3:20, the last bell rings and even though I remind students that I’m willing to stay until 4:15 on Tuesdays through Thursdays (I teach private piano lessons to supplement my meager income) and as late as necessary on Mondays and Fridays, no one comes in.

I lug home papers and am on the computer answering student emails and grading online assignments until 10 PM.

I had to set a goal this year to work fewer than 60 hours a week, lest I burn out and leave teaching altogether.  Last year, I averaged close to 70 hours a week.

Oprah, not once, not once on Monday’s or on today’s show did you address the following:

The parent who writes note after note after note to excuse his student from attending school—several students in my classes already have absence rates in the double digits.

The student whose life plan really is to play X-Box on dad’s couch.

The teachers who are doing good things in their classrooms.

Nor did you show any “normal” public school—the ones so terrified of the ACLU that they don’t require a school uniform or any type of uniform dress code—something that I believe actually impacts student learning.

I was so angry by the end that I could hardly articulate my thoughts.

And even though my principal observed my teaching four times last year and told me I was doing a great job, I must be a pretty bad teacher, because you said only the bad teachers are angry at your shows on education this week.

Do changes need to happen? Yes. Do they start with the teachers? No. The changes we need must be the following:

1. Parents need to be active participants in their child’s education. Active participant does not mean “What? My kid shows up, what else do you want?” Active participant means you check your kid’s homework and you don’t immediately assume the teacher is at fault for your kid’s lousy grade in English.  News flash: kids lie. No, I don’t hate your kid, and no, I didn’t lose his homework. He didn’t turn it in.

2. Students need to take responsibility for their own education. Come to school. Be quiet. Listen to your teachers. Try. Fail. Come in for help. Try again. Aspire to be more than a speed bump on your parent’s couch.

3. Administrators need to start changing the culture of school by giving academics precedence over athletics. Stop making allowances for athletes—get a minimum GPA in place for the athletes.  Don’t just post the Honor Roll on the office window, have a pep rally to recognize those students who worked hard.  Make it just as cool to be smart as it is to be on the football team—or make it cooler to be smart…

Anyway, Oprah, these changes were absent from both shows this week that focused on public education. Advocate these kinds of changes instead of trumpeting Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million donation to Newark Public Schools, and then we’ll be getting somewhere.  The changes we need can’t really be fixed with money.  We need an ideological shift, and that costs no money at all.



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