1 + 1 = 3? Eh, Close Enough. You Can Graduate!

What happens when an inner-city school is more of a health clinic and a kitchen than a place to learn.

This is a true story. I was teaching ninth-grade reading at William Allen High School in the Allentown School District. One morning, I was looking over my lessons for the day, and there was a question that I thought would trigger a decent class discussion: “How much money would you have at the end of a year if you deposited $100 per month into a savings account?”

I started all six classes with this question. Hands went up. They weren’t shy. I figured they wouldn’t be because kids like to talk about everything they would buy with more money. These are some of the answers I got:


“A lot.”

“At least $1,000. Right, Miss?”

They all responded with the excited conviction of correctness, even this one, “Well, there’s nine months in a year, so you’d have $900.” At least the multiplication was right.

Only three students from all six of my classes said he or she would end up with $1,200. In my own personal history, that was “one of those days.” Their hopeful faces are tattooed on my frontal lobe, many of them looking up to the ceiling while they contemplated what they would do with their loot, while I felt sick at heart. It was a combination of what my friend and fellow teacher, Keith, calls the “moral hazard” of taking a paycheck from a system that essentially said that all of those kids were competent to go to the next grade, the next one, and the next, and my utter helplessness as a teacher, a mother and a citizen of the world.

Health care is the usual centerpiece of the latest presidential stomp, but our public schools are in very bad shape, probably worse off than our health-care system. The deficits of the rising generation will result in a very sickly country and culture. Count on anyone who wants to get elected having a lot to say about schools. There will be pompous buzzwords and pretentious acronyms, but the fact that school policy can mostly be created and destroyed by politicians who don’t know much about education or children is the centrifugal force of the failure.

Take graduation rates as a good example of bad policy. Graduation rates are one of the dog-and-pony pieces of data currently being used as a bargaining chip for school funding; therefore, most students receive high-school diplomas at the end of four years, unless they drop out. In other words, you have to try really hard to NOT graduate, instead of the other way around. Sure, there are standardized assessments (we no longer call tests tests) that are meant to be gatekeepers of proficiency, but think of them as the Beefeaters who guard the Tower of London—all for show.

At the very minimum, a high-school diploma signifies competency in basic skills. Would you consider my ninth grader who didn’t know how many months there are in a year, or his classmates who couldn’t do simple multiplication, competent in basic skills? Social promotion is not a best practice, but it is a common practice that teachers mostly can’t control, and it’s a disaster. It does catch up to students, mostly in high school, as it did in my classroom that day, and it’s one of many worst practices that govern public education.

Last fall, I read a post by a Philly Post contributor that said Philadelphia schools aren’t Afrocentric enough. The reality is that most schools, especially urban schools, are not success-centric enough. They’ve morphed into social-service hubs, offering students two free meals a day, dental check-ups, vaccinations, mental health evaluations and services, free birth control, and even free daycare for their own children. While it seems civically responsible and humanitarian for schools to be all things to all children, it really isn’t because we’re trading it all on learning. We need to make a serious decision about what we want our schools to be and do. It’s not realistic to expect schools to be surrogate EVERYTHING to children.

As a country that defines itself as a super power, we must own this truth: Public education is barely on life support. It’s been corrupted and infected by attention-seekers, on both sides of the aisle, who have exploited education for their own advancement. They talk, talk, talk about solutions, which is funny since they’re the problem. So far none of them has had the stamina to follow through on anything, and students, just like my ninth graders, are left in worse shape than they were found.