An Open Letter to Gerald Bracey

An Open Letter to Gerald Bracey
Today I happened to read the interview with Jaime Escalante in Ed Week. His criticism of our public schools (and what he said didn’t depend on the schools being public, except that’s what most schools are) struck home with me. He simply said that not enough kids were in school because they wanted to learn, and as a result the school and classroom lacked the atmosphere of discipline and respect without which learning could not take place.

Here are some excerpts from the interview with Jaime, and in what he says he does make, it seems to me, a valid international comparison, although I’ve never been to Bolivia. (I have been to France and the French classroom is often just as unruly as ours.)

Q. You taught there for 12 years before you came to the U.S. How would you compare teaching in Bolivia with what you experienced in California?
A. First of all, we don’t have gangs. You don’t have discipline problems. The kids follow directions. And they don’t have [textbooks]. You have to copy everything from the chalkboard, whatever the teacher is telling you. This country gives [out] new books, and soon the books are full of graffiti. In Bolivia, the kids appreciate education. They want to be something. Over here, education is, for some students, a punishment. Over there, it’s a privilege.

And a bit later in the same interview:

Q. What should schools be doing for students that most aren’t?
A. At any school, the first thing that you have to do is, like in Garfield, to show [and] teach respect, hard work, and discipline, and today, they are not doing that.

Isn’t Jaime blaming failure on a failed learning atmosphere? He is not blaming it on poverty, single parent homes, lack of proper mental health, social, and other services etc., as the liberal would do. Nor is he blaming the failure on the lack of school choice as the conservative holds. He is blaming the failure on the lack of classroom discipline, meaning in its highest form students being in the classroom because they want to learn (its lowest form being school uniforms and all that sort of thing, perhaps also necessary in some schools).
His analysis from the gut strikes home with me because I see schools where the poorest and most at risk kids are learning because the teacher has somehow (by magic, I admit it’s not easy) created that necessary, disciplined learning atmosphere in the classroom. In Boston where I work there are Nativity, Pilot, Charter and District Schools (all serving extremely poor and highly at risk kids), where this learning atmosphere exists, and where students learn. Such an atmosphere is what Jaime created in his math class at Garfield High School in Los Angeles, although not by himself, but with, as he stresses, the help of the whole school. He is the first to admit that he couldn’t have done it without that help.

I mention all this because most of our discussions — more often quarrels and disagreements, revolve around the validity of the criticisms from the left, from the Kozols, the Meiers, the Kohls, the Berliners, or around those from the right, from the Friedmans, the Bennetts, the Petersons, et al…. I find that the names of those on the right don’t come as easily, are there fewer of them? (By the way, where do you stand? In regard to NCLB, you’re definitely on the left, but in regard to the students themselves being held accountable, there you’re on the right perhaps?)

But what I really want to ask you is this: "Aren’t all these discussions regarding our public schools missing the essential? For isn’t it the discipline, stupid.” When that’s there, and only then, does learning take place. And again, I don’t mean by that the discipline of the boot camp, although that also has its place, but the discipline that emanates from people who are together because they want to learn together.

When the conservative says that throwing more money at the problem won’t help, isn’t it because the discipline problem is not usually addressed let alone solved by the additional expenditures? When the liberal says that vouchers won’t help, that charters won’t do the job, that educational management organizations won’t succeed any better than the failing schools they would replace, isn’t it because none of these solutions stress enough the prime importance of the attitude that the student brings with him or her into to the school and classroom? The best example of the failure of money to solve the problem is probably Kansas City Public Schools (could this have been one of the few things that John Stossel got right the other night on ABC’s 20/20?). The best example of the failure of charter schools is probably Washington DC when the same disorderly and undisciplined classrooms are born again in a new guise.

You must talk with teachers who leave the profession, especially the young idealists who last just a few years, perhaps those from Teach for America. Don’t they often say they left teaching because the kids in their classrooms didn’t want to learn? Wouldn’t it be better if all our discussions of school reform were centered around the single issue of how to “get the horse to drink?” Furthermore, who cares about anything else when the thirsty horse starts to drink? Who cares about the class size, the length of the school day, the degree of autonomy of the school head, whether or not there are school vouchers,… when the student right there in front of you wants to know what you’re going to do to help him to learn.

I know things were never as we think they were, but wasn’t there ever a time when the students wanted to learn and you didn’t have to fight with them to get them just to pay attention? Perhaps when we were hunters and gatherers? Perhaps in the workshops of medieval Europe? Perhaps now in the homes of some of the home schoolers?

I like to read you. You know more than I do about all this. And I like very much when I’m able to follow your reasoning in one of your books or Bracey Reports for the Kappan.

Reply from Gerald Bracey

If I were interviewing Escalante I would ask "Jaime, how come you think you know anything about Bolivian education? You left in 1964, that’s 42 effing years ago. Even late in the 1980’s, the secondary school graduation rate was only 5%. You were teaching an elite, man. Anyone can teach an elite."

That said, school probably is seen as a punishment because too many teachers make it far too boring. Maybe universal secondary education doesn’t work. We didn’t try it until well after World War II (our graduation rate then was about 50% and a lot of people derided "book learnin’).

As I recall, the principal reason teachers give for leaving is that there was no process for showing them the ropes, no mentoring. TFA is a special case since they are recruited to teach in urban slums, but a surprisingly high percentage of them (to me, anyway) stay on well after their 2-year commitment is over.


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