Do Big-City Schools Face Collapse?
A veteran New York city high-school teacher tells about school problems that should concern everyone.
THE trouble with our schools, I believe, is more serious than you probably realize. Time and again I have seen school principals gloss over or even deliberately conceal problems. Why? Because they want to give the impression that they are doing a good job—that they have everything under control. But some more honest administrators are speaking out.
Neil V. Sullivan, as Massachusetts State Commissioner of Education, said: “Our public schools are not working. . . . The system itself is literally coming apart at the seams.” And former Philadelphia Superintendent of Schools Mark Shedd warned: “Urban education everywhere is on the verge of collapse.”
These conclusions may seem extreme, but I can vouch that they are true. For the past fifteen years I have taught in about a dozen New York city high schools as both a substitute and a regular teacher. And really, the situation nearly defies description. You have to see it to understand it fully.
Obstacles to Teaching
There has been an extensive breakdown in classroom discipline. I am not talking simply about behind-the-teacher’s-back throwing of spitballs, bits of chalk, and sundry other missiles. There is open rebellion against authority. Children commonly do whatever they like, and teachers are often helpless in maintaining order. The shouting and din in some classrooms are shocking.
In one class about which I know, the teacher, in desperation, devised a gimmick to gain attention. It was at an all-girls high school, where the girls would sit around manicuring their nails, combing one another’s hair or sharing wallet pictures of boyfriends. The teacher resorted to writing the longest words he could think of on the blackboard, and offered to pass any girl who could later spell them correctly. This became the daily class routine.
Because most students have little or no interest in the subject matter, class-cutting is common. Often a third or more of a class is unlawfully absent. Many students show up only a day or two in a semester. They are maintained on school rolls, however, so that tax monies, accorded on the basis of the number of students enrolled, are received by the schools.
As a result of the common policy of advancing students regardless of academic achievements, many seniors hardly know how to read or write. Literally thousands of students are being advanced grade by grade to eventual graduation as functional illiterates. To try to teach such pupils and, at the same time, help the others is virtually impossible.
The physical surroundings are another major obstacle to teaching. School buildings are often in a terribly uncared-for and dilapidated condition, far from conducive to teaching or learning..
Yet these are only part of the conditions that contribute to the near collapse of many big-city schools.
Crime and Violence
Gangs of youths roam hallways, forcing teachers to teach behind locked doors. Students wield guns and knives. Vandalism of school property, robberies at knife point, smoking and “shooting” of drugs in bathrooms and stairwells—all of these and more have become an integral part of student activity in big-city schools.
Unbelievable as it may sound, many youths are transferred directly from jails or mental institutions to classrooms, including my own. Over 20,000 New York city children fifteen years old and younger are arrested annually. But senior-grade teachers like myself teach older students, who are often more sophisticated at crime.
In 1973 almost 10,000 reported crimes were committed in schools or on school property in the city. Many others, even serious ones, go unreported. Some 900 teachers were assaulted in 1973, half the assaults occurring right in the classrooms! Just a few weeks ago a youth who had raped a girl in another school was transferred to ours, and the faculty was not even warned about him. No wonder self-defense handbooks have been prepared for New York city teachers!
In an effort to control the situation, some 950 security guards, an average of about ten per school, patrol the city’s high schools. This is in addition to teacher’s aids and many regular police officers. But still rapes, assaults and other crimes increase. So an additional $8.4 million is reportedly being sought for over a thousand more elementary and high-school guards!
Another tragedy is arson. Fires are common in a number of schools, where they are usually started in hallways. However, in one high school where I taught, bonfires of textbooks on the school steps seemed an almost daily occurrence.
Some persons may consider the students’ dress (or state of undress) and morals “normal,” but I consider them a contributing factor to the near collapse of many schools. Last year we even had a totally naked student streaking around a high school where I now teach. Also, necking and extreme petting go on in hallways in full view of everyone. Regardless of what some may say, unbridled sexual passions are hurting our schools.
To me this is evident in the unwed pregnant students who no longer have an interest in school studies. It is also evident in the disturbed, anxious girls who wonder whether or not to have abortions, and in the troubled ones who have already had them. And then there is the less visible but more widespread epidemic of venereal disease, which, according to one health official, threatens to infect 50 percent of U.S. teen-agers with gonorrhea in just five short years.
If I could have imagined fifteen years ago what it would be like to teach teenagers in the inner city, I might never have pursued such a career. At the time, however, teaching seemed a logical choice for a mother with a child to support. Armed with the necessary degrees, I obtained a teaching license and accepted a position in Brooklyn.
How Teachers Feel
It was with confidence and optimism that I started teaching senior English in the fall of 1959. But, surprisingly, my more experienced colleagues did not share my outlook, often talking about the “good old days.” Soon I began to understand why.
I expected the lack of respect for authority, as well as such pranks as the putting of gum or thumbtacks on the teacher’s chair. But what really jolted me was when, in full view of the class, two boys stole my pocketbook from my desk. Out in the hallway they pilfered its contents before leaving it behind a radiator. Yet it was I who was portrayed as guilty because I reported the incident. You see, some principals try to cover up such crimes, even as United Federation of Teachers President Albert Shanker has acknowledged.
About the same time, a student in my class seized another’s throat. Unable to break the grip, I called, without response, for assistance. So I begged for someone to run for help, but no one budged. In that moment I realized that I was dealing with persons bred in a culture with far different values and rules of conduct than I had ever known. And I began to understand why my colleagues were so demoralized.
Those were my first weeks’ initiation to teaching. But because I needed a job I held on, hoping for improvement. Yet worsening school conditions have only further demoralized teachers, and this, too, has clearly been a major factor in the near collapse of many city schools.
The Teachers’ Plight
I know that teachers have recently been severely criticized, particularly for striking for more pay. Typical was the comment of New York narcotics undercover agent Kathleen Conlon, who worked in city schools: “They’re only in there for the money.”
While this is certainly not true of all teachers, it is of many. But do you understand why? Admittedly, it was not always this way. Why is it now?
For one thing, an incredible number of good teachers have quit; they could not stand it any longer. “I am going to run away from the problem instead of sacrificing myself to it,” is a typical teacher’s response. The nerves of many teachers have been shattered by classroom experiences; I know of one who was literally carried from school to a psychiatric ward.
The remaining teachers, who daily face such a challenging situation, feel that they should be better compensated. Detective Conlon herself indicated what we face when she said that at one city school half the students were on heroin. (New York Times, June 22, 1972) Do you realize what such conditions mean?
To relate just one personal experience: While I was teaching behind locked doors one day, a gang of youths in the hallway threateningly pointed a knife at me from outside the window. I ignored them, attempting to continue to teach. A girl, noted for her bad behavior, and who seldom attended class, slowly and very dramatically rose from her seat and proceeded to open the back door. At the moment she did, I ran out the front door to the chairman’s office two doors away. As I entered and closed the door, fortunately it locked, right in the face of the pursuing gang.
Most of my colleagues laughingly admit that they live from day-off to day-off. Without the summer vacation, few believe they could survive. Thus, totally demoralized, many teachers endure simply for their paycheck. They find it very difficult, in many schools of the city, to help the core of teachable students who brave the dangers to seek an education. As a result, teaching has deteriorated, essentially, to a baby-sitting function—an attempt to keep relative classroom order until the students are released.
“How tragic,” you say, “for the children!” Indeed it is! And my heart goes out to the sea of beautiful young faces that I see daily—some sad, some tortured, others full of expectation and hope. Often it is with deep-felt anguish that I ask: “What are these schools doing to our children?” I know that others feel as I do.
I recently read about teachers in San Francisco who, because of the deterioration of the school system, bluntly advised a mother to take her daughter out of class. “It’s the ultimate in despair,” the mother noted. “The teachers have already given up.” Sadly, this is so often true. Yet when you see the condition in many of our big-city schools, can you blame the teachers?
“But what is it,” you may ask, “that is responsible for these conditions that threaten many big-city schools with collapse?”
Look at the Community
Racial problems seem to be a major reason. Nowadays we regularly hear about schools’ being shut down due to racial troubles, including even schools in smaller cities. But are the children responsible? Rather, it is the adults who are the fomenters of racial prejudices and the resultant conflicts. And these spill over into the schools, tearing many of them apart!
I know that many parents will say that they are not prejudiced, but that they simply fear to send their children to certain schools because of the dangers there. It is for this reason, many parents, both white and black, say, that they resist the “busing” of their children to schools in other neighborhoods to achieve racial integration. And I can understand their concern. Often it is simply not safe to send white children into black neighborhoods, or blacks to white schools. But what is the source of the problem? Is it the schools?
No, the problem originates in the community, and the schools simply reflect the problems already existing there. Most other school problems, too, can be traced to the community and the family, including the lack of respect for authority, poor academic achievement, vandalism, drug addiction, crime, violence and sexual immorality. Therefore, one cannot expect these problems suddenly to disappear when children enter a school. The forces that lead youths to take drugs, break windows, start fires, assault teachers, and so forth, do not originate in the schools!
Schools Bear Responsibility
Do not get me wrong. I am not trying to say that the schools or the teachers are without fault. They have directly contributed their share to the problems. But this is to be expected since teachers, principals and other school administrators are themselves products of a society steeped in prejudices, ineptitude and selfishness.
Thus, as I mentioned at the outset, some school principals will dishonestly gloss over or even conceal problems, for they are more concerned about their own “image,” or preserving their jobs, than they are with the welfare of the children. And many teachers manifest a similar attitude. Yet, to a considerable extent, the school system itself is responsible.
It often puts too great a demand on teachers, sometimes requiring them to teach more than twice the number of students that can be properly taught. So teachers compromise by cutting corners, and the children suffer.
Also, there is a failure to provide adequate school facilities. According to one study, 200,000 New York city pupils are affected by overcrowding in schools; 40,000 have makeshift classroom accommodations. It makes me heartsick! There is money to go to the moon or to make weapons for destruction, but not to educate the young!
Further, school programming often is poorly planned or thought out. One program that has widely attracted attention is the so-called “new math.” At first teachers themselves often did not understand how to teach it properly. And parents are generally at a loss when it comes to helping their children with their lessons. The problem is similar in the teaching of reading skills. Teachers at a single elementary school may use several different experimental teaching methods, and so, as children progress from grade to grade, they are completely confused. Many hardly learn to read.
It is understandable why Decker F. Walker, Associate Professor of Education at Stanford University, lamented: “As things now stand, educational policy flays in the wind. And the direction of the prevailing wind continually changes. The schools are saved from complete chaos only by their inertia.”
Yet there is, I believe, an even more basic cause of the frightening conditions within big-city schools.
The Effect of Example
I am convinced that adult misbehavior is particularly responsible for the misbehavior of youths. When teachers come to school braless with see-through blouses, as I have personally seen, students are surely not encouraged to dress modestly. When miniskirts were in vogue, some teachers wore the shortest ones. Surely such examples contribute to the moral problems in our schools!
Also, the filmstrip “Lovemaking,” which shows various types of oral sex (homosexual) techniques, has been recommended and shown in school by adults. When there were complaints, an investigation was started. But it was soon dropped, for, as District Attorney Mario Merola noted, “you can legally show in a school” pictures that “you can be locked up for showing to youths in a public theater.” When adults are grossly immoral, and even blatantly promote such immorality, should we be surprised that children are the same?
But the immoral example of adults goes beyond sexual matters. Why, just this last October 31 the front page of the New York Times had the bold heading “COVER-UP CHARGED TO SCHOOL BOARD.” The article pointed to “out-and-out stealing of money” and “wide-ranging corruption.” Is it any wonder that children vandalize schools in a more open manner?
It is not just certain school officials who have set an immoral example; many top men in government have too. Columnist Harriet Van Horne expressed it very well, I thought, in her New York Post column. “I have no idea,” she wrote, “how teachers in this cynical age can set about teaching morality. . . . ‘Look at Washington!’ the littlest voices will cry. They know . . . that the dirtiest cheating in history has gone on under the roof of that big white house.”—June 17, 1974.
The fact is, to teach proper moral values in school is considered indoctrination beyond what we have the right to do. Attempts to build moral character is no longer the concern of teachers, as it once was.
So, can you see why conditions are bad in big-city schools, and why many of these schools are on the verge of collapse?
What Can Be Done
Educators have been trying desperately to initiate programs to correct problems, but there is little unanimity as to what should be done. Most teachers are simply trying to endure in the midst of a decaying situation.
I know many parents think that, since teachers are paid to educate their children, the teachers should be able to do it. Yet, surprising as it may sound, the quality of a child’s education depends more on its parents than on the teachers or the school. Experience has shown this to be true.
I have observed that when parents instill in a child a desire to learn, and the ability to sit quietly and pay attention, the child learns much better than does the undisciplined, unmotivated child. “Families make the difference,” is how a Harvard professor put it when paraphrasing the voluminous findings of an educational survey. And never has this been more true than today, when many big-city schools face collapse.
So if parents expect their children to become good learners, they need to take a real interest in their education. This involves more than simply seeing that their children get safely to and from school. It also means taking a genuine interest in their progress in class. Those children, I have noted, whose parents fail to respond when a teacher asks to speak to them are almost invariably the most undisciplined and poorest students in class.
Parents, you can help your children in a number of ways. First, by starting to read to your children when they are infants. Then, as children grow a little older, let them pronounce the words along with you. Reading skills are vital to learning, and many children four and five years old have learned to read in this way.
As your children grow older, create a climate in the home that cultivates a respect for knowledge and that places high value on learning. When children are helped to use and appreciate such publications as encyclopedias, dictionaries, and especially the Bible and Bible study aids, they usually become good learners.
It is a real challenge, I know. Teaching is not easy. But if you really love your children, you will do whatever you can to help them to learn. In view of the conditions in today’s schools, this is more important than ever before.—Contributed.