My first experience in front of a classroom was seven years ago. I was 22, fresh out of college and beginning my two-and-a-half year service as a Peace Corps volunteer at a school in Pocrí, a 300-person village on the Pacific coast of Panama.
I had no experience teaching.
My counterpart, a Panamanian English teacher who spoke no English, left me alone in the room to chat on the phone with his wife shortly after first period started. This was a position I found myself in frequently in my first year in Panama – alone in a classroom filled with students – and I was woefully unprepared.
Before I describe just how useless a teacher I was that first year, I should tell you a bit more about my school. It wasn’t like most in Panama.
The school included pre-K to ninth grade. There were only three teachers for pre-K to sixth grade. Pre-K and kindergarten were with one teacher, and the other two had three grades each in their classrooms.
The communities around the school were poor and agricultural, so middle school enrollment was tiny. To stay open, the school accepted residential students from other parts of the country.
We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?
The story of education in California is a story of a "push and pull" of very strong interests. The ones in the middle have been and are the teachers and the students. So, level one is that thousands of teachers work in California. Although, they are, essentially, paid with tax dollars, they work for a myriad of school districts, school boards. The issues are, at once, the same and different: kids need to learn and kids need to learn more.
Level two has to do with what kids should learn and when. Easy? No. The public wants things taught its way. And, the public wants the learning now. ...not so easy.
Level three has to do with the cost of education. Answer? In my qualified opinion, more money should be spent. The dollars and cents people(public) wants "more" for their dollars, with "more" being undefined. After that the spectrum of ideas and opinions range and rage. From my point of view, some people and their children will never be satisfied with a public school experience. Unfortunately, this last group has been gaining ground for almost 40 years leading to the current milieu of charter schools and private online alternatives. It is my assessment that charters, of any kind, and online private schools should not be sponsored with public dollars. And, my reasons are clear.
1. public schools have been well underfunded for decades
a. special ed gets less than 17% of the expected 40% mandated by Congress
b. building structures and infrastructure updates and renovations have been in "deferred maintenance" for decades in favor of new fangled wired and wireless electronics
c. curriculum printed is outdated by the point of distribution
-the cost of text books has skyrocketed over the last 30 years
-the content of the curriculum hasn't kept up with the latest state requirements
2. contrary to some popular opinions the cost of personnel has not risen exponentially as a percentage of the total education budget. What people see is that on a "pie chart" personnel is, by far, the biggest expense. What people forget is that personnel allocations are in the "bare bones" category.
3. People have been clamoring for better results from learning ever since I Ieft my k-12 experience many moons(about 47 years ago). I'm still scratching my head over this from my experience. Everyone in my class graduated from high school with acceptance letters in hand to major universities. And, the high schools around where I grew up are still rated top in the nation.
So, are there problems in education today? Yes. But, the public schools don't deserve the heavy artillery pointed at it. The private school people don't want to pay for their specialized schools and the charter people want something special "only" for their kid. The answer is simple. The number of two wage earners in a family has grown exponentially since 1975. The number of single parent families has also grown exponentially since 1975. So, the amount of time families dedicate to education on a daily basis has declined markedly putting pressure on public schools to do "more". In a k-12 schedule there are less than seven hours of school per 5 day week in a ten month calendar. The metrics simply don't align.
Finally, there has been a huge growth in second language learning which can delay academic progress for some kids. Also, the optics of equity are frayed by de facto demographic segregation. And,more poverty and increased severe homelessness makes everything at school much more complicated. So, then the job of teacher entails far more than in decades past, far more complicated, and far more responsibility with a relative wage that has not increased for decades and far less in line with equivalent education as other professions.
I'm very happy you had a terrific experience in the Peace Corps. But, in a real sense your teaching experience was, most likely, a freer, more satisfying experience than teachers have in many communities today.
Hopefully you'll start your quest to understand public education at a 10,000' view. Systemic problems many times are the result of priorities. The SDUSD school board has made their priorities clear with the wants of Union Labor first and the needs of students a distant second. This propensity to shortchange students was on display when the SDUSD school board gave union construction labor a monopoly on all bond funded school construction work. Instead of getting the best work for the best price our school board chose to eliminate 85% of the local construction workforce (non-union) from participating in building / fixing schools.
Being everything to everyone is a great concept, by all means address problems in student subgroups (English learners, poor - disadvantaged) but recognize the problem instead of treating the symptom, zero accountability, nonexistent fiduciary responsibility and a systemic system designed to protect a special interest above all else.
The special interest puppets populating the school board are a great place to start if you're looking for answers...
Maya, so very interesting your teaching stint in Panama and your truthful recounting of your experience. I found it very well written. It left me very interested in hearing (reading) more about your Panama adventure.
Also you will have compassion for both sides both the students and the teachers, a very balanced vantage point, nice!