The mess that is public education

There’s a lot of talk these days about education reform. People want to blame the unions. Schools blame the parents. The lack of morals and the need to “restore” us back to the “good ole days,” is a common theme. Others think we just need to throw more money at the problem. And then there’s the most common one, “We need teacher accountability.”

Education Just needs a good dose of Teacher Accountability. Right?

By Debra Cole

There’s a lot of talk these days about education reform. People want to blame the unions. Schools blame the parents.  The lack of morals and the need to “restore” us back to the “good ole days,” is a common theme. Others think we just need to throw more money at the problem. And then there’s the most common one, “We need teacher accountability.”

I find the media’s insatiable need to repeat ‘’teacher accountability” rather interesting considering the fact that teachers have virtually no power over key ingredients that make up a school. Obviously, there are some lazy, negative, mean, incompetent teachers that should be fired.  Just like there are lazy, negative, mean, incompetent politicians, doctors, journalists, lawyers, stockbrokers, bank tellers, oil executives, athletes, actors, and strippers. But somehow, sound bites fuel the simplistic minds out there that just want to rally behind “teacher accountability” for America’s panacea.

Let’s look at the schedule. No teacher decides when kids change classes, the duration of classes, yearly calendars, or which unprepared and boring motivational speaker, who goes to Rotary with the principal, is coming over to take up four hours of instructional time.  It’s not uncommon to hear a teacher, particularly one in an “exceptional” area like ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages), special education, arts, or music, to describe his or her schedule in this manner.

“My 6th grade students come in at 1:03 and stay until 1:53. But during this hour, 7th graders come in after their lunch at 1:17 until 2:01. Then 8th graders who are on B team arrive at 1:42 until 2:31 on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. The A team 8th graders come Tuesday and Thursday until 2nd semester when they will switch with B team until testing week, and the last three weeks of the school year where we’re all on “ alternative schedule C”, unless we have to make up a snow day.”

Would Bill Gates, a U.S. Senator, or even assistant managers at Kroger tolerate staff meetings and training sessions with this many interruptions?  Would they put together a schedule so confusing? Of course not, so why do we expect teachers to consistently jump hoops just to do their job? What’s more infuriating is when a teacher raises a concern about a schedule, he or she is often subjected to patronizing responses like, “Well, you need to be flexible and focus on the needs of the kids. Dedicated teachers understand that what they want individually is not always best for the children.” When you consider it all, fire drills, assemblies, club meetings, standardized testing, pointless meetings, inefficient scheduling, and undeserved student celebrations, the amount of time wasted if counted in trash would be several landfills per school. Furthermore, a teacher never makes these decisions.

Discipline policy is also out of the hands of the teacher. The local Board of Education and school leaders write the policies and decide if and how they will be enforced. If you’ve been in a comedy club lately, you know that one drunken heckler can ruin the show for the comic and the audience. Imagine a classroom of 25 students most of whom act right most of the time. But, you have three kids who consistently ruin everyone’s day with inappropriate language, outbursts, and day-to-day drama they create to get attention. No one learns in this environment. The 23 other students lose out on instruction because of Larry, Curly, and Moe. Discipline policies allow a few children to waste several weeks’ worth of valuable class time. Despite public perception, most school children behave very well. It is a small group of kids in every school who consistently disrupt.  And too often nothing is done until the child becomes violent. More importantly, the teacher is expected to handle the problematic kids with little or no support.

My last year of teaching is filled with many stories that contributed to my resignation. The one that stands out the most was a kid I’ll call, “Brittany.” Brittany was an obese 6th grader with a history of depression, suicidal threats, emotional outbursts, and violent behavior going back to the 3rd grade. She wasn’t my student, but her outrageous behavior made her known throughout the school. Other than the weight, there was nothing wrong with her physically. She had no diagnosable learning problem. However, she was placed in a class of kids labeled behavior disordered. For at least 5 weeks, she held the school hostage. She cussed out teachers, kids, and janitors. She threw books and hit somebody almost daily. Everyone talked about Brittany and administrators followed the steps. They called home, gave her in-house suspension, and out of school suspension.

Finally, Brittany had enough. She picked up a desk and threw it at a teacher and tore up the classroom. I was next door and felt as if I were in the middle of the movie, One Flew Over the Coo Coos Nest.  Obviously my students stopped listening to me because of the flying furniture and the “F” bombs within earshot. I quickly went next door and took pictures of the room with my cell phone as evidence in case the school found a reason not to act.

The assistant principal asked Brittany, while she was wearing handcuffs, why did she not practice the “countdown” that she learned to control her anger. Really? The child has a psychological folder as thick as a cement block and all the school could come up with is, “baby just count to ten to calm down when you get mad.”  Even Brittany with all of her problems could see through that line of horseshit as evidence with her response. “Well, I did do the countdown. I said one motherf#$@er, two motherf#$@er, three motherf#$@er, you better duck cause this desk is comin’!”

Sadly this child was placed in an alternative setting that was just one step from a juvenile detention center. I volunteered to be the “objective” teacher who is needed for discipline meetings. It was heartbreaking to hear her mother beg officials not to expel her daughter. Uneducated, overweight, poor, intimidated, and probably been abused as well, she kept pleading, “She needs help.” “If you put her with those thugs, she will act like them.” She wants to kill herself and I can’t help her. “  However, it was too late. She crossed the line and had to go.

Because of an ineffective discipline strategy and unwillingness on the part of officials to act appropriately when this child began her reign of terror, everyone lost. Students lost valuable class time. Teachers were drained from the unnecessary drama. The meetings, the police officer summoned, cleanup, phone calls, fights with kids, conversations, and gossip-all of it time devoted to one student who could have gotten the help she needed had something been done sooner.

Americans want the “one” answer that can fix our problems. Until the public stops this ridiculous wishful thinking, nothing will change in education. Sure there are teachers out there who should work at Pets Smart instead of a school. However, the public doesn’t get that teachers deal with ups and downs, and complexities within a system they did not design, nor have any input on its day-to-day operations.

If people want to know more about our ailing public schools, spend a little time in one instead of making assumptions and spouting off solutions as if having gone to school makes one an expert. After a few days, especially in the ones with the worst leaders and the most dysfunction, observers would finally start to see that even the most dedicated and effective teachers deal with enormous stress and have to repeat the Serenity Prayer each morning just to get through the day. God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.

Debra Cole is a self-professed ‘lefty’ who calls it like she sees it. She was a public school teacher in Georgia for 9 years. Currently, she performs regularly in Atlanta area comedy clubs. She’s known for her sophisticated and smart humor that’s delivered with a seemingly sweet and yet surprising sarcastic Southern Georgia twang. E-mail her at:

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7 thoughts on “The mess that is public education”

  1. Debra, you make some strong points. I am a firm believer that the Constitution does not provide for government control of education. Not all, but most private schools tend to do a better job with educating our children. Yes that could leave out the under privileged and the lower income children. But, not necessarily, if we used our tax dollars for private education and held them to whatever the standard we expect, I think the end results would be better than expecting our government run school systems to babysit the problem kids at the expense of the others. Just my opinion!


  2. Tax dollars for private schools? How about tax dollars to build churches?? That’s where the slippery slope leads (omitting detail).

    Debra, you’re telling us we need to simplify the system, restore discipline, have coherent schedules, and let teachers teach.

    The first thing we do is kill all the FCATs.


  3. I’m a firm believer in Public Education so I don’t agree with the comments of Hugh Sullivan. I by no means advocate the dismantling of it. The pay and benefits are better for the teachers in public school. As a whole, the best teachers are in the public systems. But, despite being an enormous well-educated workforce, ideas and opinions of teachers are welcomed about as much an illegal immigrant working in a meat packing plant. Public education as a system is a lot like our bridges. It needs to be updated. It needs attention. There are complex problems and media coverage makes things worse. Also, politicians make too many decisions for our schools. The bottom line is that the public doesn’t respect teachers as professionals. Their input doesn’t matter in our society.


  4. The public school need to be re-vamped from the top down. Stop regulating and requiring Mickey-Mouse standards, values, and requirements for teachers and trust teachers to do their job, teach. The people who make these standards have never taught in a classroom.
    School should be a right for those who do not abuse it. Do not let the few take away from the rights of the many. Come down hard on students who disrupt, come up with effective management of these students. Spend the money on effective management of these cases and not on Mickey Mouse stuff- stupid impositions on teachers to document and line their curriculum up with federal or state imposed Mickey Mouse crap!
    Throw the students out of school after they’ve attempted well-thought-out, tested, intervention. Ban parents from talking abusively to school personnel. Have a military-trained discipline boot camp for those who won’t cooperate.
    I’m hopping mad- I taught school very briefly and got out- I’d rather work 3 shifts at McDonalds than be in the hell-hole environment that is a public school!


  5. We need accounability for school superintendents also. The Walton county school system is controlled by superintendent Carlene Anderson who sets all agendas and sets her own rules regarding everything. She’s accountable only to herself. She should add that she graduated with honors from the Nancy Pelosi school of charm.


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