But the public education system needs some fixing

“It’s inspiring that Barnard decided to have this type of event and give us a forum to honestly talk about the issues that are impacting us as teachers. It gives me hope that the public really cares about the direction of public education,” said Vanessa D’Egidio ’08, one of five alumnae to participate in the discussion “Are the Kids Alright? The Crisis of Education in America” held during Reunion. Moderated by Dr. Lee Anne Bell, professor of education and Barbara Silver Horowitz Director of Education at Barnard, the 90-minute session was a revealing, emotional call to action.

Augusta Souza Kappner ’66, president emerita of the Bank Street College of Education, opened the program by providing some perspective on current policy. She spoke about how her daughter, a 12-year veteran of the Oakland, California, public school system, spends much of her own money each school year on supplies and materials. “We hear in the media that teachers are inept and lazy and that they don’t care about whether or not their students are succeeding,” Kappner said. “Teacher bashing has become a kind of national pastime—at least for politicians, businesses, and some foundations. We’re told that if they were any good in the classroom they would be able to close the achievement gap between rich and poor kids, between black and Latino kids and white kids.”

Public school classrooms have become a revolving door for teachers with many departing soon after they arrive. Students have less than a 50 percent chance of getting a teacher for math or science that is actually prepared and licensed in one of those fields. In international comparisons, the United States ranks 29th out of 40 countries in science and 35th out of 40 in math. Finland ranks first in science and second in math using programs adapted from previous U.S. models.

According to Kappner, racial and economic inequalities are exacerbated by a number of factors, such as funding public education by property taxes. A crucial thing for all public school students is high-stakes testing, which focuses on English and mathematics. “As testing becomes more and more important, the curriculum begins to narrow,” Kappner said.

Indeed, the four teachers on the panel have witnessed how standardized testing has shaped a child’s daily learning experience. Each of them also shared how motivated she feels by her students and how that motivation keeps them returning to the classroom in the face of frequent frustrations. “They have few advocates in the world that actually listen to what they have to say. School is one of those places [they’re heard],” said Joanna Yip ’04, who teaches 11th and 12th grade English at International High School in Brooklyn.

D’Egidio, who teaches at an independent school, sees herself as an agent of change. “What keeps me teaching is being able on a daily basis to impact the students that I work with,” she said. Brett Murphy ’09 has taught at three schools in four years, leaving one school that focused exclusively on test preparation and another where it was discovered student scores had been altered. Now teaching social studies at Sunset Park High School in Brooklyn, she added, “A movement toward something that is fairer and more just is what keeps me [going].”

Schools have become politicized and teachers have to fight to deliver a quality of education they believe in.

Megan Robertson Hurley ’01 teaches high school English in Arkansas. She noted the difference between preparing kids to get into college and providing them with the skills to complete college. “Kids are not asked to think critically until 11th grade,” she said. Kappner agreed with this, saying many kids are not being taught how to analyze information, which will be essential to success in college.

Bell asked each of the panelists: What would make it easier?

Murphy said qualified and caring school administrators, noting that her current school is the first one where “I don’t walk into school and think that there are going to be five things that go wrong every day that have nothing to do with my classroom.”

D’Egidio declared that equity should be a priority. Yip would like more time to teach her students, who are all new immigrants. Hurley pointed to high quality leadership. “Deep-thinking leadership that knows how to use a long school day well,” she said.

Government must understand and remedy the current disconnects between education goals and realities, added Kappner, and societal influences must be factored into the equation.

Next question: How to have an impact?

“People need to organize,” said Yip, and Kappner encouraged parents and teachers to join together. Murphy spoke about getting teachers’ and parents’ voices heard in the media. Audience members concurred that there need to be more public forums. Hurley spoke about developing better testing that truly benefits students and teachers.

“The federal government has to change the way in which it allocates money for education because right now we’re using measures that disadvantage the poorer states and continue cycles,” Kappner said. “The federal government needs to invest in a strong teaching profession.”

—by Lois Elfman ’80

—Illustration by Daniel Horowitz