In early June I took retirement from the district and High School where I taught for over 12 years. However, I did not retire from teaching. I started right away as the chair of the math department for a brand new, international, boarding, private school in Los Angeles. The school will get its first intake of students this September and I have spent my summer preparing the curriculum and learning all kinds of software.
This is a big transition, especially for a “person of a certain age” like myself. William Bridges wrote in his book, “Every transition begins with an ending.” Why did I end my career in public education? Why did I actively seek to get out from where I was? In one sentence: I’ve had enough.
I came to the conclusion that academic success in high school depends largely on only one factor: home environment. Home environment – call it socio-economic status, or demographics – trumps everything else, including teachers. In a New York Times article titled “No Rich Child Left Behind”, Sean Reardon points out that “There is a lot of discussion these days about investing in teachers and ‘improving teacher quality,’ but improving the quality of our parenting and of our children’s earliest environments may be even more important.”
It did not matter how much effort or innovation I put into teaching my lower level kids (Algebra 1) – they did not do their homework, did not pay attention in class and did not care they were failing. This was a general pattern – all teachers who taught Algebra 1 observed the same performance and behavior. Not that our school did not have good students – we sent about 12% of our graduates to the University of California system. The good students did not take Algebra 1 – they had done that in middle school. They had a different attitude toward school – they cared to succeed.
However, if one measures success by the number of kids understanding (or even trying to understand) the material and going to the next course, then we failed. If this school was a hospital and we had the same rate of curing our patients as we had of kids succeeding in math, the state Board of Health would close us down.
The Principal and the Assistant Principal made things even worse. Why is it that high school administrators do not have high school teaching experience? Even more, why is it that they do not have teaching experience in one of the core subjects: math, science, English or social sciences? Instead of solid thinking and teamwork with the teachers we got top-down instruction, clichés and bombastic slogans. The motto of the school used to be “home of scholars and athletes”. The new principal changed this to “home of scholars and athletes, where ALL students succeed”. Really? ALL? Isn’t this a statistical impossibility? Or are we now defining success as just staying out of jail? But this is typical of this principal’s style and vocabulary. He let go a teacher because she was not a “rock star” (said that to her face). If he likes a department, that department is “awesome”. I wondered often what is worse – that he really believes in “awesomeness”, “rock stars”, “focused instruction”, “positive reinforcement” or that he just mouths these words?
And the teachers? They may be dissatisfied, but they do not do anything about the situation. Teaching is by the book – no innovation or questioning takes place. Partly this has to do with the fact they are not specialists in their field: in a math department of 12 only 2 were math majors, the rest math education majors. In Japan all math teachers are math majors and so are those in most countries at the top of the international rankings in math. Our teachers are also – in general – not the tops of their class. The best and the brightest science and math majors do not generally end up in education.
Well, I was fed up and I did something about it. It’s a risky move – career wise – but it opens the possibility of doing education right and, in the process, providing a lot more personal satisfaction. More about this in the next posting.