On my first day as a special education teacher in a middle school in Brooklyn, a man stood in my classroom doorway, crossed himself and chanted, in a thick Panamanian accent: “The power of Christ compels you!”
He was a paraprofessional who knew what was coming my way. He gestured as if sprinkling holy water and left, just as Class 706 boiled into the room. The first boy did a flip. The rest of them poured in screaming, punching and laughing. The eight students were all boys, Latino and African-American seventh graders, all with varying degrees of behavior disorders. The administration had figured that no girl, no matter how tough, could survive with this crowd all day as they rushed from one classroom to the next, a moveable riot.
I was their English teacher. I had five weeks of training as a middle-school teacher.
The leader of 706, a small Latino boy incandescent with energy, acted as a pocket godfather to his classmates. They laughed raucously at me when I outlined my plans for their writing. Somehow, with the help of the young woman paraprofessional who traveled with the boys, I made it through that class and my other four, larger, classes the first day, then the next day, and the next. I attended graduate school at night.
As the year rolled on, I got the boys of 706 to write a few stories. The leader also turned out to be the best writer, and I couldn’t help but like him. He reached the point where he didn’t call me names. One day, he shouted at the male social studies teacher across the hall: “You’re gay! You have a pussy!”
Some mornings the boy reeked of marijuana and he would conk out on his desk. He kept getting in trouble, in and out of school. After he tore down the 706 book report poster with its few gold stars, I called his mother.
“You know, I think I’m going to have to beat my son’s ass,” she told me. The father of another student confided, “My son ate a lot of lead paint when he was little.”
Some days I had to fight back tears when an embarrassed child would whisper to me, “Mister, I’m hungry.” I would send him down to the cafeteria for a little box of cereal, milk and an apple. I had to call security when girls fought each other, screaming and ripping out earrings and knocking over desks. I watched in dismay as hulking firemen strapped a scrawny sixth-grader to a gurney and carted him off to a psychiatric ward after an hours-long rampage that began when I asked him to spit out his gum.
By the end of the year, I was told, the leader of 706 had been arrested seven times, mostly for snatching cell phones from passengers on the subway. My supervisor told me I clearly had helped my students with their writing. “Their letters to their judges are a lot better,” she said.
I lasted four years, the average for new teachers these days. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in a 40-year career that ranged from land surveyor to newspaper reporter. It was also the best thing I’ve ever done. I just didn’t have the energy or health to continue.
No one who has not been in an inner-city school has the remotest idea how tough it is to survive as an educator in today’s lunatic environment.
Michael Brick knows. He embedded for a year at struggling Reagan High School in Austin, Texas and wrote a brilliant and important book, as searing as battlefield journalism.
Brick spins a hero’s tale. He follows the efforts of Principal Anabel Garza and members of her staff and student body to save Reagan from the bureaucratic axe swinging down on so many inner-city schools these days. A former New York Times reporter who knows how to march a story across a page, Brick recounts the gallant Garza’s everyday struggles. She tries to rally her students to raise the all-important scores on the high school exit exam as well as to win their ball games. She also has to round up truants. “There’s a rumor going around that your principal will come get you,” she says. “Horror stories about a van pulling up. They’re true. I will come get you.”
The school’s story may seem mundane at times, but it offers a microcosm of a war being waged against the insane “education reform” movement destroying schools, teachers and students across the country. Brick observes, never raising his voice in anger about the madness, the way former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch does so effectively in her new book, Reign of Error. He does not need to here. He simply weaves the madness into his story, almost in passing, like another lunch period.
Still, reform always hovers, threatening. Reagan High begins to feel like a heroic child trying to grow up with a menacing, abusive parent in the background. Education reform, funded by billionaires ranging from Bill Gates to the scions of the Walmart fortune, then implemented by bureaucrats in the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, lurches across the learning landscape like a laboratory monster.
The movement tests children relentlessly, like machine parts on an assembly line. It torments and fires teachers based on student test scores. It shutters underperforming schools despite the destructive impact on surrounding communities.
Education reformers deny that poverty causes students to fail—no, they say, failure is the teachers’ fault. They claim five weeks of training, like I had, can produce an effective teacher. I’m here to tell you that’s not necessarily true. It takes years of education and experience to become a good teacher, not weeks. The Finns know this, preparing teachers for their work with extended rigorous training—one reason why Finland’s students score better than America’s.
Brick points out that many school functions have been outsourced: “The social services groups worked in schools all over the country, not just Reagan. Some tried to do a job that teachers and coaches and band directors used to do back before the reformers made them all accountable and busy with other things.”
The author also notes the vast tutoring industry that feeds greedily from the public trough: “To companies providing ‘supplemental educational services,’ in the government’s rendering, troubled schools looked like big business. Back in 2002, when the No Child Left Behind Act became law, a fast-growing company called Edison Schools announced its move into the tutoring market, with designs on $22 billion in government appropriations. Since then, the market had grown beyond even Edison’s wildest ambitions. Every year, reformers demanded more extensive standardized testing.”
At Christmastime during his year at Reagan, Brick attends a parent meeting in the cafeteria featuring the district superintendent. She reveals she’s asked the school board to prepare to carry out an eventual state order to close Reagan. Parents began to whisper. Garza puts up slides showing the very real progress her students have made.
“Every day, things get better,” she says. “Every day the scores go up. This is a beautiful story about adults who love children and who want the best for them.”
One woman—with help from staff and students—saved one school that the bureaucrats planned to close. Such are the roots of a revolution.
Doug Monroe became a New York City Teaching Fellow in 2007. He now lives in Milledgeville, Georgia, and teaches media writing at Georgia College.