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Why a Teacher Thinks America’s Public Schools Are a Mess

The teacher, John Whitaker

The teacher, John Whitaker

Are major changes needed in America's public schools?

John Whitaker has worked as a special education teacher in elementary schools in northern California for two years. And for many more years John has worked as a substitute teacher in Sacramento, California, grades one through 12.

Given the vast numbers of unemployed teachers these days, John is understandably bitter about the plight of America’s teachers and therefore quick to fire away when he thinks people don’t understand what’s really happening in America's public schools.

Please keep in mind that John Whitaker has worked as a teacher and substitute only in northern California, so much of what he says may pertain more to the schools in that particular area. However, it seems obvious to this writer that most of what John says has relevance to the public school system throughout America.

Please read reading!

Since charter schools are all the rage in American education, what do you think of charter schools?

In my opinion, the charter school movement is a Trojan horse designed to further degrade and destroy public education. The proponents of charter schools proclaim they are more successful, as evidenced by higher scores earned by their students on mandatory standardized tests. They can crow about their success because they get to cherry-pick the students they admit for enrollment. They are free to reject students who are learning disabled, physically disabled, slow learners, or who have low IQs. They can reject students who have special needs. They can also reject students who have a history of poor grades, low motivation, and who have non-involved unsupportive parents. It goes without saying they can also reject any students with a proven history of behavioral challenges.

Public schools are mandated by law to accommodate all students, regardless of their challenges and handicaps, and teach them in the "least restrictive environment" possible. Furthermore, the federal government says education is a basic right, and has enshrined that right into laws such as the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and Individuals With Disabilities In Education Act (IDEA).

If I were running a charter school, I would cherry-pick only those students with the highest grades, the highest motivation, and who had the most affluent and supportive parents, while making sure to reject students with any learning problems whatsoever, thereby ensuring that my students scored the highest possible on tests. Then, since the "teaching techniques" and "superior curriculum" my school used proved that my charter school was far superior in turning out a superior "product," I would give myself a huge raise, as well as all my corporate stockholders. I could justify that because of my proven successful results!

Is class size a problem in America's public schools?

Several years ago, grades kindergarten through three were limited to 20 students per teacher. The year after, it increased to 25. The year after that, it increased from 32 to 35. Next year, many districts are proposing increasing it from 40 to 45. The year after that, they are proposing to increase it to above 60. The fire marshal has a limit on what is safe for the maximum number of people who should be in a classroom. Sixty students will exceed the fire marshal’s limit in most cases. The only way teachers will be able to safely teach classes of that size would be to rope off sections of the gymnasium and conduct learning there. Of course, all physical education and sports would need to be eliminated. It is a huge problem!

Is violence a problem in America's public schools?

Yes! Fighting, bullying, guns, knives, and gang violence are epidemic! Students who want to learn are intimidated into not learning. We also need to stop the layoffs of our peace officers in our secondary schools. Every secondary school needs a staff of peace officers to arrest any lawbreakers and protect those students who are trying to get an education. Right now, we are laying off many, if not most of our peace officers in our secondary schools. If we do that, the violent drug gangs will take over and intimidate all the students who want to receive a quality education in a safe environment, thereby preventing the school from attaining its mission.

Do students seem to be excited about learning?

Most students are not motivated to learn and succeed. The problem is exacerbated by parents who are completely uninvolved in their children’s education. Moreover, now that “No Child Left Behind” stipulates that only the three R’s must be taught at the exclusion of all other subjects, the majority of students are not stimulated enough to be motivated to learn when they are only offered three subjects; school is boring!

Has bureaucracy become a problem in the American school system?

The main problem is that the grandstanding politicians are now in charge of classrooms even though they have no experience teaching in a classroom. We need a new law that stipulates that all principals, superintendents, and school board members should have at least five years classroom teaching experience!

Do parents need to become more involved in the education of America’s children?

Generally speaking, the only parents who are sufficiently involved in their children’s education are affluent and highly educated parents. All the other parents display the assumption that teachers need to do ALL of the teaching and the parents need do nothing except provide TV, video games, and other digital devices. And besides, everyone knows that prescribing Ritalin is so much easier than parenting!

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The three R’s are sometimes referred to as reading, writing and Ritalin. Do you think the stimulant Ritalin should be prescribed to school children?

Having worked in special education, I think it’s true that some medication helps some students some of the time. But I also think these medications are being over-prescribed as a matter of expediency or convenience for both parents and teachers. Not only do these medications produce physical side effects, but the bigger problem is that these students will not learn how to cope with their issues or problems and will need to continue to take these medications as adults.

Is Drug Abuse a problem in America’s public schools?

Prescription drugs could be a problem but their use is hard to detect. Alcohol and pot have an odor so users would be easy to detect, because campus security and/or the police force watch for such activity. Moreover, any student who engages in extracurricular activity must past a drug test, which includes random testing. Be that as it may, one time a kid blew crack smoke in my face, and I’ve also smelled cannabis smoke odor on several students early in the morning, particularly at the lower income schools.

Would giving more money to public schools help?

Absolutely! It is a simple fact in our world that anything worth doing is worth paying for! And while we are at it, let’s double teachers’ salaries!

In general, test scores for America’s students appear to be below average. Assuming this is true, what needs to be done to improve test scores?

We have to stop teaching the three R’s exclusively. That’s where we lose the vast majority of our students—by taking away music, art, physical education, vocational education, life skills training and sports.

Teachers and advocates such as Michelle Rhee, founder of Students First, have asserted that ineffective or incompetent teachers and/or principals need to be disciplined or fired. What is your viewpoint on this issue?

Michelle “Chainsaw” Rhee needs to be fired and prevented from ever coming within 2,000 feet of any school or any children ever again! Any boss or supervisor should know that the human capital of any organization is its most valuable asset. If a boss is less than satisfied with an employee’s performance, then the boss should demonstrate what changes should be implemented by the employees and the employees should then be trained on how to implement those changes! To barge into a classroom to fire a teacher with an entourage of TV cameras rolling so as to advance one’s own political career is the very epitome and essence of everything that is wrong with so-called education reform today! Michelle Rhee is a grandstanding politician who is clawing her way to fame and fortune on the backs of our students and children. She needs to get a job at McDonalds!

Michelle Rhee has also suggested that teachers be paid according to student achievement. Would this “merit pay” be a fair way of compensating teachers?

That is the very worst idea currently being presented as educational reform that I have ever heard of. What would happen is that the teachers in affluent schools - who do relatively little work because their students are highly motivated - would get merit raises; but all the other teachers, who do much more work trying to motivate their less affluent students, would get no merit pay or possibly be fired. There is no way this idea could ever reduce the achievement gap.

Should the process of tenure be continued with teachers?

Absolutely! Tenure provides some security to teachers from political witch hunts conducted by politicians, school board members, politicians and capricious administrators. It is also an excellent way to retain exemplary employees.

Should it be any harder to fire a teacher who has tenure?

As things stand today, any teacher who has tenure and breaks any laws or any school code of conduct can be fired immediately. On the other hand, if an administrator (such as Michelle Rhee) didn’t like someone’s looks, it should be relatively difficult to fire the teacher - and relatively easy to fire the administrator!

What do you think of school vouchers?

The people who advocate for school vouchers are ideologically opposed to public education. Giving public funding to private schools is an inherent conflict of interest. I am absolutely opposed to public funding for private schools, whether for profit or not!

Should teachers use standard or nationalized tests or be allowed to use tests they deem appropriate for each individual class?

Teachers should use both types of tests in their practice. They should also use individualized tests to differentiate their instruction.

It’s been said that in the old days, teachers ran the classroom but nowadays students run it. Is this statement true?

Nowadays, politicians run the classrooms. Teachers these days have no say or input in the choice of curriculum and have no say into the pacing of their instruction - or any say in the individualized, differentiated instructions that their students are so desperately in need of!

Since the late 1990s the graduation rate in American public schools has been reported to be around 70 to 75 per cent. Do you think this rate is accurate?

Absolutely not! School districts are not required to accurately report dropout rates. For example, if a student informs a school that they are transferring to another school in another district, no tracking is done to determine if indeed that student transferred or dropped out. The real dropout rate in the large school districts in California is in excess of 50 per cent, and in some schools in Los Angeles, the dropout rate for these “failure factories” is in excess of 80 per cent!

If you had millions of dollars to spend on public schools, how would you spend it?

I would bring back the teaching of art, music, sports, physical education, vocational education, life skills training, science, geography, social studies, and humanities! I’d also triple teachers’ salaries and cut all administrators’ salaries!

Do you have any closing words?

We need to get back to educating whole individuals, which includes an emphasis on the teaching of critical thinking, creative problem solving, collaboration and cooperation, life skills training, career skills training, vocational training, music, art, drama, physical education and conflict resolution. Moreover, we need to kick out from the entire educational realm any politician who has “never” taught one day in a classroom. For the most part, we need to make education RELEVANT to our students again!

Please leave a comment.

© 2011 Kelley Marks


Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on September 13, 2018:

Thanks for the comment, James Davin. I suppose Mr. Whitaker's comments contain contradictions. It seems he wants to return to the past, when class sizes were much smaller, spanking was allowed and more liberal arts courses were taught. For the most part, he's disgusted with the current school bureaucracy in California. Judging from what he's told me, I'm glad I never became a teacher. Later!...

James Davin from Bethesda,MD. on September 12, 2018:

Interesting article with lots to agree and disagree with. Mr. Whittaker has some curious logic he puts forth.

First he decries the horrors of public schools just having the three R's and not having the other things such as physical education and arts.

But on the other hand he bashes Charter Schools and Private School Vouchers. These kids that go to charter schools and private schools get these extra programs like phys. ed.

and the arts! Furthermore he points out the problem of large class size but with more and more kids leaving for charter and private schools doesn't that reduce the number of kids in public schools thereby reducing class size?! He seems like a really

nice guy and probably a great teacher but his logic doesn't always

hold up here.

MelindaJGH on October 06, 2015:

Agreed! Thanks for stimulating discussion!

Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on October 06, 2015:

Thanks for the comment, MelindaJGH. It's hard to tell how good or bad America's public schools really are. Later!

MelindaJGH on October 05, 2015:

Your article is compelling, however, based on my experience teaching in a low-income Bronx neighborhood, some parents of high school students monitor their students' work and encourage diligence. Too many students succumb to peer pressure to act tough and disinterested in learning. American culture does not elevate the intrinsic value of learning.

irenova on June 12, 2015:

I agree with Mr. John Whitaker 99% because some of his arguments needed a little more detail. Nevertheless, John Whitaker, where have you been all my life????

Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on June 08, 2015:

Thanks for the comment, letstalkabouteduc. (Your pseudonym certainly explains your intent!) Anyway, because of all the BS that now exists in America's public schools, I no longer want to be a teacher. At one point, many years ago, I actually did. Later!

McKenna Meyers on June 07, 2015:

Great interview! He's right; bureaucrats are calling the shots. Teachers can no longer be as creative as they once were. They need to constantly worry about testing -- even administering tests to kindergartners! There's a crazy "escalated" curriculum where little kids are expected to do things that are not developmental appropriate like writing in journals and doing STEM lessons. Common sense is out the door!

Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on August 12, 2013:

Thanks for the comment, BruceDPrice. John is certainly passionate about what he sees as the downfall of America's public schools. Later!

Bruce Deitrick Price from Virginia Beach, Va. on August 10, 2013:

This is a personal and eccentric mix of progressive and conservative ideas. Almost nobody will be able to say, I agree with him or I don't agree with him.

To my mind, there is no coherent core. That's why you get this weird spectrum of thoughts. But I can say that for me the funniest thing of all is the idea that the schools are teaching "the 3 R's exclusively." I'd be happy if they teach the 3 R's at all.

Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on January 14, 2013:

Thanks for the comment, gaeparks. All humans need balance, though I'm not sure being "unbalanced" leads to Columbine or Virginia Tech shootings. Still, attending a good art class can be a wonderful experience. Later!

gaeparks from North Las Vegas, Nevada on January 13, 2013:

Without the Arts and PE, we will be developing under-developed people...not students. We send these people off to some college or university only to find that there will be no foundation for competition or fair play. They with the "sense of entitlement" that so many children seem to have, unfortunately there might well be many more Columbine, Virginia Tech, movie shootings, and Elementary school shootings. All humans need balance, and all education will never be good enough even if the education is of the highest quality with every teacher teaching bell-to-bell, common core state and national standards, and every students have a textbook (the latest version), and individual IPads, and all the technology money can buy...the human (student) will always be under-developed. We must remember that all the great minds that we study were once or became artists, then scientists.

Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on July 29, 2012:

Thanks for the comment, Kathryn L. Hill. I will check out your hubs. Later!

Kathryn L Hill from LA on July 28, 2012:

Hi Kozmo. Hope you will visit my hubs! I certainly enjoyed this one!

Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on October 29, 2011:

Yes, carol3san, America's public schools definitely need an overhaul, but they won't be bringing back art, music or handwriting until the money is there, and that may not be back for awhile - if ever. Later!

Carolyn Sands from Hollywood Florida on October 29, 2011:

Teachers salaries are a problem but is not the most important one. I believe that the entire department of education needs a complete overhaul. Not to throw more money on the problem, but to FIX the problem once and for all. I'm not an educator but I find it insane when I hear that the children in my state are only being taught to pass a certain test. Physical education, music, art, even handwriting are all out. I believe these classes are very much needed to help prevent stress, improve the child's confidence,and level of fitness.

Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on May 30, 2011:

I'm sure John would agree with you regarding teachers' salaries. They work long hours and often have to spend their own money to pay for supplies. Later!

awddude from Mongolia on May 29, 2011:

The number one goal of any teacher should be to get the salary raised. I have heard horror stories of teachers in America making pennies... teachers should be payed more.

Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on February 26, 2011:

Thanks for the compliment, Genna East, I had lots of fun interviewing my good friend John for this incisive question and answer session. I hope to do more of this sort of thing in the future. Later!

Genna East from Massachusetts, USA on February 26, 2011:

"All the other parents display the assumption that teachers need to do ALL of the teaching and the parents need do nothing except provide TV, video games, and other digital devices. And besides, everyone knows that prescribing Ritalin is so much easier than parenting!"

Spot on, and tragically true, IMHO. I cannot understand why parents think that teaching begins and ends at the classroom door. Technology provides many benefits, but to use it as a babysitter or surrogate parent is a huge mistake that numbs and dummy downs thinking and relating to human society as a whole.

Excellent hub.

Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on February 24, 2011:

Thanks for you comment, gobangla. I wanted to stimulate lively debate on this issue and I succeeded somewhat. Later!

gobangla on February 24, 2011:

Merit pay would actually compare apples to apples. Teachers in less affluent schools would not be competing with teachers in more affluent schools. They would be competing with other teachers in less affluent schools. A report done by the LA Times found that good and bad teachers are spread across both good and bad schools. It is a myth that all the good teachers teach only in good schools. My sister is a teacher and she says that there are too many teachers in her school who really don't care about whether the students learn or not. Why shouldn't the ones who do care get paid more?

There is no doubt that teacher pay needs to increase dramatically. But America is already one of the biggest spenders on education in the world. Spending has almost doubled since the 70s. It is highly unlikely that more money will help. What is needed is spending the money in the right places, such as on higher teacher pay rather than on nice rental cars for school board members.

Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on January 31, 2011:

I'm overwhelmed, Art! What more can I say?!... Later!

artlader from Aiken, South Carolina, USA on January 31, 2011:

Well, at the risk of sounding like a lightweight... My wife and I both teach high school German. Our courses are admittedly not terribly rigorous for the first couple of years. They get pretty tough after the second year, I guess. That's what our students tell us, anyway.

We have successfully done IB and AP. Our students excel. We have a big, successful German program. We have a great exchange program with our partner school in Munich. Etc.

What my wife and I talk about the most, though, is whether or not are our students thriving (okay, happy).

Yes, yes, we know that school is sometimes hard work. Of course. And we understand that the things that make some students happy are simply awful. We know. We are not naïve.

But we are veteran educators and we know what we have seen: Happy chickens lay more eggs.

When our students feel good about the class and about themselves, they not only learn more, but they enjoy learning.

We have not gotten soft. We are not pushovers. We do not spend a lot of time worrying about their self-concepts. (Actual achievement and real academic success seem to take care of that.) We simply know from long experience that a productive, pleasant classroom is the best environment for our kids.

Unnecessary stress doesn't usually help our students learn. It just frustrates them and makes them less hungry to learn.

We try very hard to help our students succeed, but we never pretend that any one activity or assessment is life-or-death. For Pete's sake, it's just German. If you don't get something today, you will almost certainly get it tomorrow or the next day, right? Hey, we'll help you get it.

For example, we read (Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior) and were not horrified. But that is certainly not how we treated our daughter and it's not how we treat our students. Not gonna happen.

So, today we spent a lot of class time singing this song. --

Can you imagine how much fun it was? It was a blast! And our students are truly eager to come to class tomorrow and they will work their little rear ends off getting the song just right for Friday's performance and they will not even notice how hard they are working and how much they are learning.

That's they way it has to be.

Don't fill a freakin' bucket.

Light a fire.

Thankfully, it seems like a lot of Hubbers get that.

Sorry about being so verbose. This is my life's work, though, and I think about it a lot.



Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on January 30, 2011:

Our schools probably need to be changed from the bottom up, if you will. Radical change may be needed, in fact, to eliminate student apathy. At the very least, costs need to be brought down, particularly at the college level. Perhaps a revolution is necessary. Thanks for the insightful response. Later!

WildIris on January 29, 2011:

Thanks for sharing this interview. It seems to me there is something in the culture of public school that leaves students uninspired whether the school district is small and family like or a large urban school. Even if the arts were returned to California's schools, I'm not sure it would come close to addressing student apathy. I've found to be an involved parent means not to question what goes on in the classroom unless you want to be labeled a helicopter parent.

Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on January 27, 2011:

You speak some wise words, Art. Wow, you quoted Yeats?!... What a dude! Anyway, I'm glad you liked the interview. Later!

artlader from Aiken, South Carolina, USA on January 27, 2011:

Hi, Kosmo,

I have to agree with you about the foolishness of a laser-like focus on basic skills. There are many bright, eager students in the schools who lose their enthusiasm for learning during the long, tedious march from one state or national standard to the next.

What they crave is true intellectual stimulation and a little magic and joy. They want more than simple proficiency in a long list of objectives. They need more.

Yeats got it right when he said, “Education is not filling a bucket, but lighting a fire.”

We need to stop filling buckets. We have to light fires.

Just my two cents.

Thanks for an interesting hub.



Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on January 25, 2011:

California isn't the only state with serious financial problems. Nevertheless, you're right - America's priorities seem to lie with chasing terrorists rather than providing for the health and education of its citizens. Later!

Wesman Todd Shaw from Kaufman, Texas on January 25, 2011:

Yeah, all the money in California; and those money elites don't want to pay taxes for good schools.

America is a place with some seriously eff'd up priorities.

Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on January 24, 2011:

Thanks for your comment, Lynda. From my perspective, it's hard to judge the severity of problems in America's public schools, though there seems to be critical problems in California's public school system, where the state government is just about bankrupt and therefore cuts money for education seemingly on a daily basis. Anyway, if what John says about the dropout rate in L.A. is accurate, look out for all of us! Later!

lmmartin from Alberta and Florida on January 24, 2011:

He sounds like a very angry man. I have no idea what's going on in California, but in Florida, in my neighborhood -- which is not an affluent area -- parents are highly involved in the schools and from what I've seen, the assignments given the children are interesting, thought-provoking and teach the skills of research. I don't think working class North Port is an anomaly. I doubt the majority of schools fall under the description given here -- at least from my own personal observations of the children and parents around me.

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