Educational Negligence: Guilty as Charged

Carol Jago teaches at Santa Monica High School and directs the California Reading and Literature Project at UCLA. E-mail:

Dear Mrs. Jago, I learned alot in this class. this class made me use parts of my mind that I didnt really use before. I also liked most of the assignments we had. I just hope I pass this class to graduate. I love being in your class. I wouldn't change it for nothing.

Sincerely, Jorge C.

Jorge--not his real name--is 17 years old and the product of 12 years of public education. The note appears exactly as he wrote it.

If this isn't evidence of malpractice, including my own, I don't know what more a judge needs. "Alot"? No capital letter at the beginning of a sentence? Contractions without an apostrophe? A generation of students is passing through our schools that has not acquired the rudiments of correct usage. No wonder 47% of them need remedial English at Cal State. And no wonder their employers are hopping mad.

I can offer plenty of excuses, such as that there were 39 students enrolled in Jorge's senior English class, making it difficult for me to get around to each one individually. I can also point to his spotty attendance and casual attitude toward academics. If I really want to delude myself, I can blame Jorge's lack of skills on his ethnicity or family background.

But the no-fault truth is that Jorge has been shortchanged. He came to the public schools for an education, and we let him graduate with writing skills no reasonable person would tolerate from an eighth grader.

In a speech to the National Coalition of Education Activists, Luis Rodriguez compared his own education in Los Angeles public schools with that of more privileged students in Bryn Mawr, Pa., where he had been hired as a poet in residence. "Why was it that these schools had a 100% graduation rate and a 100% college entrance rate? What is it about these kids that they cannot fail? I asked the teachers and they told me that these children feel more than empowered; they feel that they are entitled. Their school won't let them fail. The kids are not any more intelligent or creative than other kids. But somebody ensures that none will fail. There is a sense that the entire institution will, if necessary, come together for the needs of just one kid."

This is the way it should be for all children. But the $4,500 California spends per student simply will not buy what $17,000 a year private tuition offers students in Bryn Mawr. Money alone will not solve the problems of public education, particularly when squandered on flashy new programs or bureaucratic nest-building, but money can help. It can buy smaller class sizes and a tutor for Jorge. It can put computers in every classroom and clean restrooms on every campus. It can buy books. Money can also buy better teachers and reward effective teachers for a job well done.

When results of the Stanford 9, a standardized test that every second through 11th grader in California took this spring, are published, everyone will be pointing fingers. It's the fault of bilingual education. It's the fault of not enough bilingual education. It's uncredentialed young teachers. It's burned-out old teachers.

I don't care whose fault it is. I just want a system that will come together when necessary for the sake of a single child. I want an institution that will not allow students to fail.

Jorge should sue. His parents put their faith in the public school system and counted on our professional expertise to ensure that he would be prepared for life after high school. They expected--and had a right to expect--that his teachers would make sure Jorge learned to read and write. We have signally failed their child.

Your honor, I plead guilty as charged.

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