Why Can’t We Solve the Problems in Our Schools?
Prisoner of Second Grade is a memoir of the fifty years I spent in school as a writer, teacher, and advocate for more creative education reform. My experiences spanned the last half of the twentieth century so will give you a firsthand account of the haphazard and politically expedient reforms that have narrowed the vision and squandered resources of the American education system. These reforms began with the National Defense Education Act of 1958 and were followed by mini classes and modular scheduling in the late sixties, the open classroom in the seventies, the back to basics movement of the eighties, and the obsession with standardized testing that took hold in the nineties. This obsession set the stage for the disastrous No Child Left Behind Act, Race to the Top, and the lack of vision in the education system that has led to charter schools and vouchers that threaten to undermine our public schools.
As you will see when my students used what I taught them to end the gang activity in our school, solving the problems in our schools may not be as expensive or difficult as we’ve been led to believe. But as you will also see when I’m driven from the teaching profession with nothing but exemplary evaluations in my file, the problems in our schools are different—and darker—than they seem.
How and Why I Wrote Prisoner of Second Grade
When I won the big teaching award for my writing program, I knew deep down I was living on borrowed time. Not literally. It’s just that I was more of a poet at heart than a teacher. By poet, I don’t mean simply a lover of metaphor but rather one who breathes for the day when truth turns power structures into flowers. It’s this latter trait that in so many oppressive regimes has earned poets a reputation for being nettlesome. So I wasn’t entirely surprised when my students used what I taught them to turn gang leaders into advocates for education, only to have our principal say no to the plan. Although what he actually said was yes while giving me a choice between saving my students or saving myself. In the end, I lost both. I then spent the next fourteen years trying to write a book that would show how what happened is a perfect illustration of why we can’t solve the problems in our schools.
The reason the book took so long was that the task turned out to be harder than I’d expected. And I was the biggest stumbling block. Ranting on and on at the system, I became like one of those cranky old bores who just can’t get over the fact that the world won’t change to accommodate them. In truth, I’d brought much of what happened on myself. Accepting this, I adopted a more creative approach by taking up a crusade for bringing the arts back into the classroom. When this strategy swung me like a pendulum into something resembling an aging hippie, I tried centering myself through every meditation technique known to the New Age. In the process, I felt called to bear witness to the injustices many children suffer in the name of education. However, a number of superb and heartbreaking books had already chronicled this tragedy. And it was no longer news that yet another dedicated teacher had been driven from the system. Growing sullen and solitary, I fought off the despair of failure through an obsessive pursuit of the martial arts. When not striking out at punching bags, wooden blocks, sparring partners, and the air, I sat at my computer, typing and retyping the same old lines, changing this phrase or that, searching for the magic word that would open the door out of my lost life. But magic words exist only in fairy tales, and I fell into a grave depression.
The only thing the book really had going for it throughout those years was the insight provided by friends and relatives who were never shy about telling me when I sounded too whiny, vague, angry, defensive, or wrapped up in the poetry of self-justification. But the blessings came from those who could still smell the flowers. What I settled on in the end is a series of vignettes, each one a kind of open meditation, an invitation to the reader to reflect with me on the ways in which we in America are educated. To be more specific, I’ve written the book to show how policy affected me at different stages of my life. I did this by turning over the narration of the story to the poet who as a teenager got sent to the back of the school bus along with all of the arts and humanities. It was, after all, when the poet finally stood up to claim her birthright and encourage her students to do the same that the teacher was dismissed. I also found that looking at the education system through the eyes of the exile also revealed some significant and as yet unexplored reasons for the problems in our schools.
Of course, I realize the kind of anecdotal evidence presented here lacks clout in our world of experts and expensive studies. But herein lies my point. When policy is based on bureaucratic benchmarks laid down by legislative decree and mission statements funded with buckets of money, those implementing the policy become so attached to outcomes that they fail to notice what’s happening to the children. And when education is not about the individual, it’s no longer education but training. Everyone becomes the same; justice lapses into policy; and without fully realizing the consequences, we’re all caught up in a vicious cycle that has nothing—and everything—to do with education.
I know that in the final analysis I’m responsible for all the choices I made. It’s a free country, and I had every privilege of a white, upper-middle-class childhood. However, after pondering the ways policy affected my life, I not only agree with the adage that “all politics is local” but would also hasten to add that everything policymakers do is personal. My story is important, not because of what happened to me, but because the lessons I learned too late reveal what’s been missing from the last fifty years of education reform in America. I also believe my story suggests that by rethinking the problems in our schools, we may find that the solutions are not as difficult or costly as the education establishment would have us believe.