Your Teacher Can’t Read
But At Least You’re Well Dressed
by Kirsten Andersen


It’s September again, and fall has arrived right on cue here in the nation’s capital. As if by God’s own hand, Labor Day weekend brought a much-welcomed ten-degree drop in temperature and a crisp (almost cool) breeze. The trees on my street already have a few yellow leaves, and the department stores are selling snow boots, winter coats, and turtleneck sweaters.

The other thing that the dawn of September brought was a return to school for most children in America’s public schools. Many back-to-school headlines focused on the atrocious clothing styles available to kids, and school administrators’ futile attempts to ban bellybuttons and bra straps from the halls of learning.

I myself watched in amazement over the holiday weekend as young women of no more than 14 years of age charged through a local shopping mall, mothers in tow, spending hundreds and even thousands of their parents’ dollars on runway-worthy ensembles to wear to geometry class.

One girl of about thirteen (sporting a mouthful of braces and a painted-on t-shirt with the word "Sexy" scrawled across her nonexistent bosom), picked up a pair of spike-heeled, knee-high leather boots, and announced loudly to her mother, "I want these!" Mom, who looked like an older, more pathetic version of her daughter (tight t-shirt stretched across sagging breasts and short-shorts revealing ample cellulite and varicose veins), sighed heavily, but purchased the boots with little protest.

After the look-alike mom and daughter departed the shoe section, I looked at the price tag on the boots they had purchased – they were $310. I thought back to junior high, and how hard I was on shoes at that age (and still am!). My mother would have been stupid to pay more than twenty bucks on an item I would undoubtedly have destroyed within weeks. I may have complained incessantly about wearing cheap shoes, but – like most good parents – Mom was right.

While children were bleeding their parents’ bank accounts dry at Bloomingdale’s, teachers were preparing their classrooms for the post-Labor Day rush. Confusion was the order of the day in Fairfax County, Virginia, where an acquaintance of mine teaches, and where kids countywide were up to two hours late on the first day of school due to bus drivers getting lost on their new routes. That scene was surely played out in school districts across the nation, resulting in hours of lost classtime and a disgraceful waste of our tax dollars.

If super-low Levi’s and lost bus drivers were the public schools’ worst problems, we would be in pretty good shape. But three news stories released this week paint a much bleaker picture for the nation’s public schools and the children who attend them.

The most shocking and troubling of this week’s reports came out of Illinois. The Chicago Sun-Times reported that 5,243 teachers in the Illinois school system flunked the most basic of skills and competency tests. Teachers in that state must pass both the Basic Skills test and a subject matter test in order to receive a regular teaching certificate, but loopholes in the law allow some teachers who have not passed one or both tests to teach anyway.

The Basic Skills test is just that – a test of basic skills. In theory, eighth graders should be able to pass the test with few exceptions. In practice, there are 868 teachers in Illinois who have repeatedly failed and have yet to pass this simple exam, and many more who failed one or more times before finally passing.

Of the test, Tom Loveless (Director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution) said: "This is a test designed to screen out completely illiterate teaching candidates, so the fact that someone passes this test is not something to throw a party over. It doesn't mean they are a good candidate. [sic] It simply means they are not illiterates."

If you multiply the above statistics out, assuming that each exam-failing teacher has 30 students, today there are 157,290 students in Illinois learning from teachers who are basically illiterate. If these teachers are at the junior high or high school level teaching five classes per day, the number is even higher – 786,450 students are learning from college graduates who struggled and/or failed to pass a basic test of reading and computation skills. Obviously, something has gone very wrong in America’s public school system.

Elsewhere in America, educators from foreign shores are being hastily recruited to head overcrowded classrooms in both inner city and suburban schools. The adjustment is difficult for both students and their teachers. While students complain that instructors’ heavy accents are difficult to understand, the teachers are finding that the priorities in American schools are much different than those in their native countries. New Indian immigrant and Columbus, Ohio math teacher V. Phani Bhushan put it this way in an interview with the Associated Press: "First is discipline, then math." Kind of says it all, doesn’t it?

Lastly, a new study by the American Legislative Exchange Council (made up of 2,400 state legislators from both major parties) contrasted the per-pupil educational spending of all 50 states and the District of Columbia with student achievement on several standardized tests. The results of the study were more or less a ranking of how much educational ‘bang for the buck’ taxpayers are getting in their respective states.

The study found, not surprisingly, that some of the states that spent the most money had the worst academic performance. The best example of this was the District of Columbia, which ranked fifth in per-child spending at $8,055, but came in 50th in academic achievement (only Mississippi scored lower). The 1st-place state in academics, Iowa, ranked 32nd in per-pupil spending ($5,725), putting that state in third place on the A.L.E.C.’s ‘best buy’ survey.

Obviously, the problem with the public schools isn’t a lack of money, despite what the teachers unions may tell you. The root of the problems facing public schools today can be found in two places – the teachers unions themselves, and indifferent parents.

The teachers unions (the NEA and AFT) fight relentlessly to protect the jobs of incompetent, functionally illiterate teachers like the ones who failed the Basic Skills test in Illinois. They demand more teachers and higher salaries (the more teachers and the higher the salaries, the more dues collected by the union), but simply making sure the teachers who are already there are competent would go a long way toward solving both discipline and academic problems.

Many parents are also partially to blame because they fail to discipline their children at home. They are ruled by their kids -- pushed around and forced into submission by tiny tyrants who demand $300 shoes and belly piercings or they’ll...what, exactly? Stop liking you? I challenge any parent with a twelve-year-old brat to deny your child one request and see what happens. Sure, she’ll hate you (temporarily) – but she’ll respect you. And you can’t possibly expect her to respect her teachers if she doesn’t respect you first.

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