Why Are Our Public Schools Failing?

There is plenty of blame to go around. So where are the solutions?


(Editor's note: As we go to the ballot box to vote on a parcel tax and state school funding measures, our columnist considers the many causes of public school failure -- and absolves one interesting choice.)

The purpose of this column is to give the average citizen a chance to view the day-in-day-out workings of the local high school—at least the portion I inhabit.

            I try, whenever possible, to give a sense of the unfolding school year.

            If you were a teacher in San Leandro's Korematsu ninth grade building this week you would probably be taking stock. Tuesday marked the end of the first quarter of the school year. Report cards are going out this week. That often stimulates a significant degree of angst among teachers.

            Kids are failing. Forty-three (almost exactly one-third) of my students received F’s in English One. Only three of those failing kids avoided an F in some other class. Most had three or more F’s. Failure is widespread.

            It’s like this every year.

            Who is to blame for this?

   Certainly I bear some of the responsibility.

            My lessons were not good enough, interesting enough, or clear enough. I didn’t make enough parent contacts. I lost my temper too often.

            And, most importantly, I didn’t always protect the good kids from the destructive ones. I live daily with the guilt that I can’t prevent noisy, vulgar, ill-disciplined kids from impacting the lives of well-intentioned children.

            My grading system harshly penalizes students who refuse to make an effort—perhaps too harshly. Several times at teacher conferences over the past few years I’ve heard speakers suggest that the lowest grade for an assignment should be 50% so that a few missed assignments aren’t fatal to a student’s chances for a passing grade. It’s something I’ve been considering.

            The School Board and the district bare some responsibility.

            The curriculum they require us to teach is stale. Many of the books and stories we teach are comparatively ancient and have no chance of engaging a modern, urban kid--and you know my opinion of mandatory algebra.

            The federal government has its hand in this problem. Methods dictated from Washington straight jacket teachers and prevent any real attempt to motivate the bottom third.  

            The wealthy parents of the district helped create some degree of failure. When some of us tried to keep tracking out of our new school two years ago (there is no tracking in middle school) parents of college-bound kids used their political influence to segregate troublesome kids away from the high-achievers.

            I understand why they did this—I might have done the same if I were in their position—but lower-track classrooms are breeding grounds for failure.

            Administrators play a part. They get so submerged with disciplinary issues and meetings that they have no time left over to lead.

            Every year there is talk of new methods to reach out to students with multiple failing grades. Within a few weeks of the start of school any teacher can identify this population; and every year we watch, horrified, as this group marches toward life as a dropout. There isn’t the time or the money to do any meaningful intervention.

            I’ve never been a parent so I feel out at sea when it comes to apportioning blame to families. When I do speak to parents of failing students I hear plaintive expressions of helplessness. Parents can’t be in the school (although occasionally one will visit my classroom), they often can’t infuse their children with the desire to succeed at the game we call school. 

            It is easy to pass most American high schools. Any young adult who cares can get a diploma. Which is why, ironically, I haven’t included students in my hall of blame.

            It seems so self-evident that whatever the rest of us do, my students have the power to steer clear of failure. 

Read other columns from the Entirely Secondary archive.

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David November 01, 2012 at 04:23 PM
"Many of the books and stories we teach are comparatively ancient and have no chance of engaging a modern, urban kid--and you know my opinion of mandatory algebra." Again this excuse? Because Huck Finn bore a resemblance to where/when you grew up? Or to me, a kid growing up on the South Side of Milwaukee, or to my Polish/Arab/Hispanic/Pakistani neighbors reading it? Beowulf? The Merchant of Venice? Were you a 16th century Jew in Italy at some point? A early medieval/Dark Age Anglo-Saxon chief? The Canterbury Tales? The Heart of Darkness? The Old Man and the Sea? None of these stories were in any way relevant to the time and space of my high school years. Yet we read them. Not only did we read them, but my middle class and lower urban classmates wrote literate reports on them, and it showed up on our tests of proficiency in the English language. Furthermore, if you think that at some point your job is to expand kids' horizons beyond E. 14th and some club in SF, it would behoove you and your students to read something different. Otherwise, as previously mentioned, you might as well just have them read the daily local newspaper.
Fran November 01, 2012 at 05:16 PM
Jerry, you forgot to mention the privatization of public schools. This is what is happening, this is the future. Vouchers, charter schools, etc., are the means to make this happen. Education is profit-driven in our society. There's already a choice, if you choose not to send your children to public school, you can choose to pay for private school. It's a false choice.
Robert Marrujo November 01, 2012 at 09:17 PM
"Many of the books and stories we teach are comparatively ancient and have no chance of engaging a modern, urban kid". A pathetic excuse. Some of the most incredible books I've ever read came from the classroom. It's sad that you think only people with silver spoons in their mouths can appreciate books like Animal Farm or To Kill a Mockingbird.
Ken Briggs November 02, 2012 at 11:47 PM
we have only a few good teachers and for the ones that try to be good can not teach because of the way the cschool runs things . if the brat , misbehave student cuts up in class the teacher has the right to kick the kid , kids out of school . make the parents of the bad kids come to class while they are in school .
Thomas Clarke November 03, 2012 at 12:57 AM
Jerry, once again you have made the persuasive argument for your voluntary retirement. One third of your charges fail. You spread the blame. You are the problem. If you were in a non-public non-union capitalistic business you would be unemployed, terminated because of the failure to do your job. Tom provides you with the bully pulpet while you castigate your peers, superiors, inferiors and advisors. Do everyone a favor, including the upcoming group of students. Leave now. Quit without reason. Just go. Rest assured no one will miss the impact that you never made. Overpaid, over incented and under producing. Sounds like a recipe for future political office or a sad old bitter teacher no one cares about. Quit. Soon.
David November 03, 2012 at 01:12 AM
Thomas, when you're right, you're right.
Ken Briggs November 03, 2012 at 02:00 AM
ask the kn ow it all drop outs why ? ask them why they drop out of school.Yes we need better books of todays world and have techer that can help after school for the ones that did not undervstand what happen in class that subject ..
Fred Eiger November 03, 2012 at 02:19 AM
You're not failing anyone Jerry. Can these functional illiterates in your classroom even read the title of the books? And since you are a remedial English teacher why are you attempting to teach these kids the classics when obviously they need to be reading Dr. Seuss? I say continue to give any and all kids who can't pass an F grade. Make them fail and continue to hold them back. You and no one else is doing anyone a favor by passing functional illiterates.
Ken Briggs November 03, 2012 at 03:07 AM
Fred , most of these drop outs use street talk . teachers need to be able to have up to date stuff to teach with .
Fred Eiger November 03, 2012 at 03:26 AM
Ken these street punks, need to wash their faces, pull up their pants, shampoo their hair and talk like civilized humans instead of dope smoking ebonics.
Elisabeth Huffmaster November 03, 2012 at 04:06 AM
This woman now works for Khan Academy. This video laments the current state of algebra teaching. Watch her other videos to see web-thinking at its best. A view into the mind of some the smartest of the next generation: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v-pyuaThp-c&feature=autoplay&list=UUOGeU-1Fig3rrDjhm9Zs_wg&playnext=4
Ken Briggs November 03, 2012 at 01:56 PM
Fred , You are so right . but the teachers need to have more power like they used to have to throw the punks out of class when they disrupt the class . make them stay after school and learn what they did not when they were in the class room .
Rob Rich November 03, 2012 at 04:02 PM
What are the consequences of failing English? If the answer at school is basically none, then these kids are learning, just not the lessons they need. 1/3 failure is a huge red flag & I thank Jerry for raising it. He certainly knows that each post triggers another fusillade aimed right at him. To be honest, I love armchair quarterbacking as much as anybody, but at the end of the day, "It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming..." (T. Roosevelt) Jerry's job is an incredibly important one. He is "in the arena" and has the guts to share where he comes up short. I appreciate that. Strident partisanship notwithstanding, nobody has a monopoly on good ideas. We need to implement best practices wherever we may find them, provide opportunity to our students, & demand accountability from everyone involved.
Thomas Clarke November 03, 2012 at 11:13 PM
Rob, you are right. The act of failing English in high school is just as irrelevant as high school itself. Most of the teachers have little to offer and course material is as Jerry says of no value in the real world. There are not grades in the big world. There is success, measured through happiness, achievements and acquisitions and there is failure measured collectively by shared misery. About the only grades awarded are jail and parole time. The failures of high school are little more than the stub toes on the barefoot trail of experience. High school students are just puppies. No brains, no skills and no experience. In four years they will become fathers, mothers, politicians, bankers, soldiers, robbers, priests, pederasts, sales people, thugs and inmates. The grades, teachers and curricula have little to do with what creates these next victims of life. Keep turning them out Jerry.


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