Urban schools tend to struggle with every aspect of their collective mission. Educating exceptionally needy students while struggling to pay electric bills makes for a disheartening endeavor. Compounding this, the public can be less than sympathetic to the travails of these schools and their employees. Taxpayers often see the imbalance between expenditures and results as a reason to cry foul. The public directs most of its scorn at school leadership. However, this same public reserves a fair share for those working at the school level. Having worked at the school level myself, I sadly must admit that an unspoken issue weighing on urban schools is the quality of their employees.
Teachers often take a beating in public forums. My experience as a teacher should make me ready to defend them. I can’t do this without qualifying whom I’m defending. Throughout a fourteen-year career, I worked alongside several remarkable individuals who happened to teach for a living. I was privileged to know talented, dedicated educators whose efforts too often went unheralded. Similarly, I can praise several of the administrators with whom I worked. Many were model leaders. I worked with dozens of para-educators, several of whom could’ve run classrooms themselves. These aides and assistants impressed me as much as the teachers and administrators did. Such consummate professionals represent the hope within urban schools. Then there is everyone else.
I didn’t go to school in a city, but I moved to one to begin my career. As condescending as this may seem, part of what made me think I could teach was recalling the quality of teachers I had as a child and teenager. I figured I couldn’t be any worse than them and if they could do it, I surely could. During college, I felt disappointed and disillusioned that some of my fellow students eventually would be responsible for teaching someone’s children. The gravity of this prospect didn’t hit me until I worked in a large urban district. I soon realized the situation was worse than I could’ve anticipated. All along, I’ve been the first to admit my shortcomings. I’ve recognized where I’ve lacked. What I found in urban schools made me feel overqualified.
As a special education teacher, I usually worked in tandem with a classroom assistant. Before beginning at one school, I remember the principal advising me to be judicious with the kind of contact I allowed the assistant to have with students. His advice confused me until I met my assistant, who told me forthright that she “couldn’t read too good.” I wondered what she was doing working with children in a public school, but I didn’t ask. Over several months, I found her limitation wasn’t unusual. Several of the para-educators had precious little basic reading and writing prowess. Attempting to see this as something positive, I thought perhaps this boded well for the employability of the students I taught.
The aides and assistants weren’t the only limited staff members. Though I met wonderful secretaries, I met many others who seemed only slightly more competent than the students in our charge. Several of the school police officers I knew were valuable assets to schools, but several others were liabilities. For every knowledgeable and effective counselor, therapist, or librarian I met, I unfortunately met others who shouldn’t have been responsible for any part of anyone’s education.
What disappointed me most were the teachers around me. Special educators tend to share data, so I had many opportunities to read my colleague’s writing. Doing so revealed grave incompetency. I shivered knowing these people taught literacy skills. The impression they must’ve made on parents made me embarrassed for the profession. Too many were too disorganized to handle their responsibilities. I often scratched my head wondering how these people would manage in the private sector. I realized they couldn’t. Perhaps that was why they were teaching.
My disappointment didn’t end with teachers. I met administrators barely able to form complete sentences. When administrators sent home letters to parents, I sometimes cringed upon looking at the quality of the letters. In meetings with parents, I’d writhe listening to some administrators speak. I wondered what hope there was when leaders lacked fundamental literacy.
The issue that stands out to me is urban schools draw many of their employees from their communities. This makes many employees of urban schools products of the schools themselves. Knowing what is known about the competencies of students leaving these schools should make this prospect alarming. Some urban schools graduate entire classes of students who hadn’t scored at basic levels on state reading and mathematics assessments. Graduates of these schools who go on to work in city schools become part of a cycle of educational inbreeding. Their only experiences are with dysfunctional schools. While they might relate well to the students in these schools, their possibly deficient skills and warped expectations are undeniable detriments.
I’ve seen several examples of how urban schools weaken themselves by drawing from their own. Over the course of a decade, I took nine student teachers into my classroom. All were students from a nearby university. Only one was a product of the local school district. I can say objectively she was the weakest teacher candidate with whom I worked. Her writing was poor. Her spoken language was a horrendous model for students. Her ability to meet deadlines and manage projects was enough of a problem that it undermined her grades. Making all this worse, she had a propensity to blame others for her inadequate performance. She stood out from her peers in drastically negative ways. Importantly, she had graduated from one of this city’s magnet high schools.
Questionable academic competencies aren’t the only problems urban school graduates bring with them when they become employees. Conduct can be an issue. I’ve witnessed fights between staff members in urban schools. One in particular stands out. It involved a teacher and a classroom assistant, both graduates of the district in which they worked. Each woman had a reputation for being confrontational. However, a fistfight in full view of students was unprecedented for either of them. They had a loud skirmish in the middle of a hallway. After exchanging barbs and gathering a crowd, one took a swing and the fight went to the floor. They rolled together punching and screaming obscenities while teachers and other staff members kept students clear of the melee. They stopped as they got winded. After they separated, the school day resumed for all. Both combatants were in school the next day and for the rest of the week. The principal didn’t report a serious incident. Neither brawler received a formal reprimand. Eventually, the classroom assistant got an assignment to another school, but administration didn’t disclose why. Years later, the teacher resigned following an incident involving a parent and an extended leave of absence.
Brawling is an extreme example of misconduct, but I watched other more subtle types which may have been more damaging. Many teachers would saunter into work in the mornings at their leisure. Those most guilty of this usually weren’t the ones who had gone to parochial schools or suburban districts. These same tardy teachers would be late to meetings and late with requisite paperwork. They were the same ones forgetting to call parents. They were the same ones without sufficient data to support the grades they gave. They were the same ones with attendance problems. Schools are complicated entities and making them run effectively requires a cooperative effort. One can’t expect a school serving needy students to do so effectively with so many weak links.
The weaknesses extend far beyond classrooms and even schools. Large urban districts rely on small armies of support staff in administrative offices. Many of these support positions don’t require college degrees. Graduates of the districts fill a disproportionate number of these positions. They represent the machinery of an urban district. The efficient logistical management of such a district largely rests in the hands of its graduates. I’ve never read anyone suggesting this could be a problem for these districts. Perhaps I’m exaggerating the potential for it to be so, but I have to think the potential exists.
Please understand I’m not suggesting most urban school graduates who go on to work in urban schools end up being part of the problem. I’m confident many of them go on to make the schools they serve better places by fulfilling whatever roles they play. My suggestion is that an unspoken limitation of urban schools could be the poor performance of their homegrown employees. Yes, these schools face more pressing limitations. Insufficient funding, deteriorating facilities, and challenging students come to mind as just a few of these. When reformers look at how to improve these schools, I think an additional consideration should be the competencies of those working in them and for them.
Addressing this could be problematic. States have certification tests in place and if these employees pass them, they’re good enough on paper. Unions push back against calls for stricter reviews of employees at all levels. These districts have positions that must be filled and they have to fill them from somewhere. Certainly, districts can’t discriminate blatantly based on alma maters. Adding incentives to attract employees from outside urban systems might require more than budgets will allow. With such hurdles, what can be done about the issue?
Determining the scope of the issue would be the best start. Beyond my observations, genuine research would help identify just how much of an issue this is. Some tracking between groups of employees with differing educational backgrounds would be needed. Do teachers who come from urban schools have lower college GPAs, lower certification test scores, and lower ratings on the job? How do para-educators from the city do with whatever certification tests or classes they have to take? Do many support staff members come from traditionally underperforming schools? If the answers are what I suspect they will be, some action could be warranted.
Perhaps these districts need to do more to entice their best students to consider working for them. Early forms of internships might catch some promising seniors who may want to try becoming teachers, counselors, or therapists. Following the model some charter schools use, these districts might do well to run magnet schools that focus on administrative office skills as a vocation. Urban education academy schools could be effective (though I know of an urban district that has one of these that does little with the model). Such a school could partner with local universities to become a lab school for teacher candidates interested in urban education. Perhaps some of the student teachers passing through will be motivated to stay. Well-advertised job fairs that reach out to colleges—in and out of the city—could help send the message of need and the notion of districts being worthwhile places to work. Though budgets might limit this, maybe incentives could be used to draw employees from outside the cities. A university partnering with one of these academy model schools might be able to spare some tuition vouchers for those willing to commute to work in cities.
I’ve seen urban education at its lowest. To my disappointment, I’ve felt part of what has weighed down the enterprise has been the tendency of these schools to hire their own. In more instances than I can recount, this seems to have been more of a problem than an asset. Critics of urban schools would be wise to consider this as a contributing factor to the slow progress in these schools. Along the way, I’ve seen the work of outstanding professionals, many of them products of the districts in which they’ve worked. These individuals truly are living beacons of hope. Urban schools can mine their resources differently for their betterment. The talent I’ve seen firsthand convinces me that the mediocrity I’ve seen can be surpassed.