Kids, grownups in school showdown

Today, Tokofsky and five L.A.-area high school students who have researched student disengagement at Crenshaw High School discuss teacher motivation. Later in the week, they will debate class sizes, bogus grade-promotions and more.

Credentials can’t cause caring
By Carla Hernandez

Thank you, Mr. Tokofsky, for having this debate with youth. Nobody ever really listens to our opinion, when in fact we do have some important things to say.

Most teachers in our schools don’t know, or want to learn, how to change the problems in our communities.

More than 60% of students in schools like ours — mostly black and brown — are dropping out (or, are being “pushed out” systemically) of school and relying on their streets to provide answers. Teachers are not trying hard enough to prevent students in our communities from falling into these traps.

If you look at it, most of our teachers can’t make a subject interesting. (They’re boring!!!) And to make it worse, most of us are learning from uncaring teachers who don’t support us in our learning. Seeing life through the students’ eyes, you’ll see that they find what they don’t get in school in the streets. When this happens, you have students interested in a life that has nothing to do with what they learn in school. This results in students falling into the school-to-prison pipeline.

This is our reality! Because of this, we need teachers who can create activities that involve their students, their communities and their problems. This will attract the students’ attention instead of causing them to daydream in classrooms over-packed with unqualified and overworked teachers.

The No Child Left Behind Act and its definition of a highly qualified teacher does not work well in our communities. The act defines a teacher as “highly qualified” when he or she has subject-matter qualifications and university teaching credentials. But how about communication qualifications and culturally empowering credentials? If you don’t have credentials we can respect, then you don’t have the quality we need.

We need teachers who can prepare us to resist failure and transform our communities. A qualified teacher can go beyond teaching us how to read and write. Quality teachers can empower us to make a change. According to our research in the Crenshaw High School community, a highly qualified teacher can also 1) motivate students, 2) care about the problems in students’ lives and 3) have a passion for teaching students of color.

Our community wants teachers who care about us. We are struggling in our communities and we need teachers who can understand that. Most teachers in our schools don’t have that quality. Teachers need to take time out of their schedule to share ideas with their students, and to be able to encourage us when we are in need of support. Teachers should worry about problems beyond the school, helping their students feel safe with them and one another, prove to us that they are people we can rely on when everything in our world seems wrong. As Crenshaw High School teacher Monique Lane said, we need to “replace teachers with people who care!” Do you think it’s fair for students to go through schools where no one seems to believe in them? Or seems to care? We don’t! Would that motivate you, or your children, to keep striving for more, when all you see is failure and poor teaching around you?

Carla Hernandez is a 10th-grader at King/Drew Medical Magnet High School, and an active member of the Watts Youth Collective.

The teacher challenge
By David Tokofsky

Carla, thank you very much for being involved in school and community issues. You are to be commended for your engagement, and I respect your feelings, thoughts and research. Above all, you are right to focus on the quality of teachers as the core issue for P-12 education.

You are lucky to attend King/Drew Magnet. We can be proud of its successes. The recent closing of the county government’s King/Drew Hospital reminds us that although challenges in public education are numerous, in many ways the school system is doing better than other areas of government service.

Let me start with a few key facts. California has had tremendous population growth over the last 20 years. With population growth comes a requirement to find a sufficient number of teachers. When I first came to L.A. Unified as a teacher in 1983, the pay was $13,000 a year and the district needed to find 12,000 new teachers for that year alone (the state of California as a whole was short 150,000 teachers). At that pay, and the low pay over the last 20 years, we have not been able to attract enough new -- let alone quality -- teachers. While the search for a massive quantity of teachers is not an excuse for the quality question, we must be aware of the magnitude of the problem.

Your references to No Child Left Behind are misplaced on the local level. These are federal regulations and rules. We in the local school boards have opposed such laws from afar as they do not take into account local circumstances. Yet we locals embrace the higher standards and increased accountability of NCLB. We also know that NCLB is really the same federal involvement that brings Title I money and other entitlements that we use in our urban schools.

School districts can do a lot to excite teachers to teach passionately, but ultimately that goal rests with the adult teachers themselves. Now that we only have a need for 2,000 new teachers a year, you are right to ask all L.A. County school boards to raise the requirements to become a teacher in urban and inner-city settings.

But students also need to shoulder a lot of the responsibility for learning. You casually say that 60% of kids drop out or get pushed out. First of all, that figure is inaccurate. Many students in L.A. County’s overcrowded system fall into a variety of categories such as continuation schools, independent study, community day schools, adult schools, and so on. They also move frequently from district to district, making their status harder to measure.

Students may in fact have too many alternative choices for schooling in California, which is the conclusion that the State Legislative Analyst reached in February of this year. Students want choices, but much of schooling requires discipline.

While money is not the answer to all these recruitment, retention and training issues, we must remember that California ranks in the bottom third of states in funding. Recently, education activists passed SB 1133, which took money from good schools and gave it to some of the state’s lowest performers. This transfer of the limited existing monies exacerbates the funding problems at quality campuses like King/Drew, a school with the highest API in the inner-city southern parts of L.A. County.

We need this extra money to pay all teachers more, and to establish higher standards and training for content instruction. I think you are right that teachers should know more about students’ communities, but they ought to know Science, Literature, Math and Social Students first and foremost. Good teachers will know their subject matters well; great teachers will, as you rightly say, will also know their students well.

David Tokofsky is a former board member of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Next day’s Dust-Up >>
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