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Is Public Education Working?

Yesterday, I showed up to work as a substitute teacher at Holyoke High School (HHS) in Holyoke, MA. Actually, I wasn’t a substitute teacher or what we used to just call a ‘sub.’ My official title was Visiting Teacher, and my visit lasted exactly one day.

Holyoke is a city of some 38,000 residents, of whom nearly 50% are Hispanics, who initially came up from Puerto Rico looking for jobs. There used to be a lot of factory work in Holyoke, but the red brick factories are now almost completely gone. The median family income in Holyoke is just under $38 grand a year; in Massachusetts, the median family income is $84 thousand and change.

I was a permanent teacher at HHS from 1995 through 1998, when I left to work at MassMutual as a Director of IT. I retired from MotherMutual in 2008, did a few other things and would have returned to teaching a few years ago except that I (and everyone else) ran into Covid-19.

After doing all the things you have to do to get on a public payroll in MA (background checks, etc.) I reported for work at 7:30 and was given a teaching schedule consisting of 5 basic algebra classes along with a Home Room class.

The first thing I noticed was that although the Home Room started at 7:45, maybe half the 20 students ended up in their seats just before Home Room ended at 7:55. We didn’t tolerate tardiness in the ‘olden’ days, because if you didn’t know how to show up on time, you wouldn’t be able to hold down a job.

Midway through Home Room, an announcement was made about the day’s activities over a loudspeaker, in fact the announcement was made twice – once in English and then again in Spanish. The kids in the room didn’t pay the slightest attention to either one.

I am 100% in favor of respecting differences in culture, gender, language, and race. As far as I’m concerned, these attitudes should be unquestioned and public education should be used to drill these ideas into every student’s head.

On the other hand, I also believe that the role of primary and secondary education is to make sure that students are literate in the language which is considered the ‘normal’ way to communicate in the wider society, particularly when it comes to getting a job.

There would never have been a public announcement made in Spanish when I taught at HHS between 1995 and 1998. At that time, Spanish was only spoken in the English As Second Language (ESL) classes which are now referred to as bi-lingual education and are supposed to bring kids with English-language deficiencies up to speed.

After Home Room ended, I spent the next 6 and a half hours meeting with the 75 kids who were registered in 6 algebra classes, including one class which was cut in two 30-minute segments so that the students and teachers could eat lunch. The total number of students in these 6 classes was around 80 kids, of which maybe 60 students actually showed up. If I had marked ‘absent’ for any kid who was late to class, the total attendance would have been somewhere around 40 at best.

Not only did a majority of the students come into class late, but I’m not talking about four or five minutes late. In every class, kids kept showing up fifteen, twenty minutes late or more, and when I asked them why they couldn’t get to the class on time, the usual response was a shrug.

At the beginning of one class, three adults walked into the room, none of whom bothered to introduce themselves, so I asked them why they were in the room, and they told me they were paraprofessionals, each of whom was working one-on-one with a student in the class.

Except this personalized mentoring or whatever it was lasted about 10 minutes in each case, and then the three paraprofessionals stood together at the classroom door and talked to each other for the rest of the class.

At some point during this class session four or five kids stood up, walked past the paraprofessionals, and went out into the hall. Were they stopped and asked to produce a hall pass, which they would have had to request from me? No. Did they tell anyone where they were going? No.

At that point, I was getting fed up with the organized chaos which seemed to be rampant throughout the school, and I asked the paraprofessionals why they didn’t stop the kids from leaving the classroom? “Oh,” one of them replied, “I’m not about to risk getting beat up because I prevent a kid from going wherever he wants to go.”

Risk getting beat up? How is it that a student who has demonstrated any kind of tendency towards violent behavior is allowed to even enter the school? When I asked another teacher that question later in the day, she shrugged and said, “Nobody really cares.”

Here’s the best one of all. At some point I received an email from the Dean informing me that the students in my next class would be working on a lesson plan which she had previously uploaded to an internet storage space known as Google Classroom. I sent an email back to this individual asking for access to the website so that I could see the materials that the students would be using in that class.

Here was the Dean’s response: “Only students have access to that site.”

I’m just the person responsible for making sure that the students complete their assignments, but I'm not allowed to see those assignments, right? I assume this craziness is so that the teachers will respect the privacy of their students.

Here’s an even better one. Just about every male student in my classes walked in wearing a hoodie, which seems to be the unofficial uniform for boys at HHS. They can’t walk into a bank wearing a hoodie in Massachusetts, but they can wear one into class.

At some point I started talking to a male student and I asked him to remove his hoodie while he was talking to me. He refused, and he refused in a belligerent way. So, I told him to go down to the school office and say that he had been thrown out of class because he refused to respond to a simple request from me.

The kid sauntered out of the room but reappeared several minutes later. Rather than returning to his seat, he stood up in front of the class and yelled that ‘Mister So-and-So’ in the office told him that he had a ‘right’ to wear his hoodie and I had no ‘right’ to tell him to take it off.

I don’t know whether this kid actually talked to someone or not. All I do know is that when I taught at HHS thirty years previously, the idea that any student would have stood in front of my class and lectured me on his ‘rights’ was an idea that simply would not have formed in my mind.

Let me sum up my brief experience in public education, okay? I can only speak for one school, but in this school, the level of chaos, noise and inattention was remarkable, and when I mentioned this situation to other teachers, the usual response was a shrug, which seems to be the standard communication device at HHS both for students and staff.

Now that the GOP is fashioning its cultural war tactics for 2024, I’m sure that public education will be high on their list. Conservatives have never been all that comfortable with public education, particularly after Al Shanker led a bitter New York City teacher’s strike in 1968.

Shanker’s union, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) more recently supported government mandates to control Covid-19, which was enough of a reason for the alt-right to demand changes in education curricula, like getting rid of teaching about race and alternate genders, particularly since education has a funny way of producing liberals who then won’t vote for the GOP.

That being said, if my experience at Holyoke High School is in any way typical of what is going on in public education, particularly public education in communities which are heavily populated by what Rush Limbaugh used to call the ‘deserving poor,’ then we will produce generations of kids whose ability to work and support themselves without massive amounts of public assistance will be near zero, or none.


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