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The Reality of Teaching in a Small School in the Bronx (anurbanteacherseducation.com)
71 points by REducator 1704 days ago | 40 comments

I think the major thing here is to see that there are two types of problems.

The first type of problems are easy to fix. You can throw more money at broken printers and leaky roofs. However, that's the easy part. Generate enough political will and it will occur.

The other type of problem is systemic cultural issue. I grew up in a poor rural area and teachers could leave us alone and we wouldn't get into their desk drawers which always contained money and candy, let alone steal bathroom passes and laptops. It seems clear to me that this is where the real work needs to be done. I see what you might call a culture of urban poverty slipping into Americas suburbs and rural areas.

Has anyone seen anyone doing anything meaningful to address the harder issues found in the second type of problems?


Give the kids ownership in the school.

It's ok to give them an education, but make them earn it and own it to some degree. I'm not talking about money necessarily, but I am talking about having some kind of investment in the institution.

College dropouts or coasters typically aren't paying for their own education, and high school students who steal and f*ck up school property don't have any feeling of obligation to the school.

I'm not sure exactly how one would do this -- at the extreme, they could participate in the building of the school itself -- or perhaps there would be a requirement to participate or get booted. That sounds a bit draconian, but I can't think of another way to cure apathy other than being emotionally involved.


Since the Meiji era, Japanese schoolchildren have been given the duty of cleaning the school (think treating it like a dojo). I always liked the idea of having kids help run the school. I think this particular practice is starting to fall out of favor, though.


The problem is that they have no motivation to earn the right to study at the school in the first place.

And parents would (rightly) object to schools that either threw their children out or forced them to do labor to stay in school.


Is that really true? If you're right, it would be an obstacle. However, as fluffy as this may sound, I think there is value in the lure of the something you have to work to get. That may supply enough motivation. It's complex, I didn't mean to imply ownership was the only solution...

To continue on your second point. I disagree about "(rightly)", I think it depends. It doesn't have to be hard labor, it just has to be significant. Laying bricks was an extreme example -- you could think of things that are worthwhile to the school that aren't necessarily at quite that level. :-)

Honestly, I think the "rightly" reflects a degree of entitlement (not on your part, just generally) that kids tend to feel about schools (because they're kids), but adults should have grown out of. Enforcing some kind of ownership may help kids grow out of it and help adults to participate in the school rather than demand things like it was fast-food joint.


This second issue is for sure one of the core issues facing us. I'm not either aware of large scale efforts taking place. Obama's/Duncan's teacher accountability efforts I don't think will do all too much to help.

The only solution I see is 2 pronged:

1. The system keeps the community out. It's hard for parents to be involved. Instead we need to somehow incentivize parents/the community to become involved in the educational system. Help them care.

2. Time. Truly teach students great values, inspire them, give them a reason for hope, allow them to have vision, let them focus on what they care about (to an extent of course), and actually make school relevant. As a result future generations of parents may have better understanding of their role. Maybe, for now anyway, that should be a greater goal than (mostly hopelessly) teaching them how to balance chemical equations or learning the inner contents of a cell.


Boarding school?


It's one possibility, anyways. (There are a myriad of reasons to be uncomfortable about essentially putting the responsibility for raising poor children on the state, but the SEED schools seems to be working).


"The first type of problems are easy to fix. You can throw more money at broken printers and leaky roofs."

Can you? Schools receive a lot of money, and have been receiving increasing amounts of funding per student over the last few decades. Some of the worst performing schools spend some of the most per student. I doubt the problem is truly a lack of funds, it's more likely to be a mismanagement of funds. In that case throwing more money at the problem may eventually "trickle down" results to individual class rooms and teachers as a side effect but ultimately is not a solution to the problem.

The second type of problem seems as much of a ready scape goat as anything else. If the school system is horribly mismanaged what would motivate them to enforce discipline in the classroom? Then they couldn't blame the students for the inevitable failure of education.


I heard this story about a Tsar in Russia, who was told that the province with the most doctors also had the most illness. He promptly ordered all doctors executed.

I'd say that bad schools get more money because they need it. In a school that's practically a war-zone, you need lots of money just to replace the essentials that students wreck.

Bad schools often have good inputs (students per teacher, facilities, etc), but they also have things like ex-students lurking outside the school gate (dealing drugs? signing up gang recruits? heckling the students? who cares); and many of the parents don't exactly help the kids get their homework done.

There are programs (cash transfers to poor parents, if they meet certain conditions) that have been proven to work (through randomised trials - something that Mexican politicians are better at then US ones), but it's more expedient to look for "root causes" (play the blame game) than look for empirical solutions that work (even if you don't understand why).


"Some of the worst performing schools spend some of the most per student. I doubt the problem is truly a lack of funds, it's more likely to be a mismanagement of funds."

"No Child Left Behind" should have been "No Classroom Left Behind". Test scores encourage "teaching to the test", and often in crappy classrooms without adequate lighting, heating, etc. Encouraging directed spending at ensuring each classroom meets minimum standards would have been a better use of spending, imo.

In theory, these should be pretty easy to verify. Go in to a classroom - does it meet standards X, Y, Z? It passes, district is reimbursed for spending (or however you want to work it).

"More money" from government bodies would likely just get tied up in top-level budgets, and little or none of it would see its way to real classroom improvements.


You are very mistaken about this. Schools in America are largely funded locally. Poor communities correspondingly have poorly funded schools, while better more affluent ones have have better funded ones.

Research statistics from any source you find credible. They all point to the fact that high performing schools spend substantially more per-capita on their students education then low preforming ones. Funding isn't the only problem by any means, but it is a crucial one.


TL;DR - Loads of organizational problems, disincentives, and cultural problems make this job hard, and nobody who can do anything about it listens. There's also not enough money.


These schools are awash in money. Per capita student spending has gone through the roof the last three decades, and NY spends as much as any place in America.


The unions and bureaucracy suck the system dry. That's why less-funded private schools in NYC consistently outperform public schools.

Every single rotten thing is the result of either dysfunctional culture or dysfunctional management structure/incentives.


> That's why less-funded private schools in NYC consistently outperform public schools.

The "less-funded private schools" are also allowed to choose the cream-of-the-crop, are not required to enroll child with special needs and can jettison problem students at the drop of a hat. As I wrote earlier, if the problem was strictly "unions" you would expect states without collective bargaining agreements to outperform states with those agreements and they don't: http://shankerblog.org/?p=895


There's a pretty good piece in City Journal about how some schools are awash in money, but that isn't the core problem . teen pregnancy is: http://www.city-journal.org/2011/21_1_teen-pregnancy.html

The rate of single parent families has risen dramatically in the past few decades, with the rates climbing even higher in urban areas. Raising kids takes time and money - two things you have much less of when you are a single parent. There has been a lot written about this subject, but it's politically taboo and not much will (or can) be done about it.


Yup, as with most instances of mass starvation in the late 20th century the problem is never lack of food, it's mismanagement.


The author seemed to think that more money would fix the problem as well. But the faith in money to fix things is pretty blind-- the only thing that fixes problems are people who care, and anyone who tries here will end up in a fight with the people who don't care. Pay them enough money and they'll start caring? Yea, right.


Well this guy looks like he does care. (keeps dry fruits to help the kids out) Money would definitely help fix the broken roof, bad heating, broken printers and help keep stocks of paper at the least. Possibly better pipes too.

It seems that you are saying that more cash will not help with the problems he has described. Could you clarify why having more cash will not help?


More cash won't stop the kids from stealing, accusing the teachers of inappropriate behavior, or vandalism. More cash won't make the kids stop bringing knives into school, won't make them want to learn, won't make them behave in class, and won't make them stop beating each other up.

ADDED IN EDIT: Those problems run deeper than the school simply not having enough money.


Perhaps the kids should be swapped out for more obedient kids?


Right. I've cooled off somewhat, so I'm going to delete my other comments because I feel that they are intemperate and, in some cases inappropriate. I apologise for them.

To answer your question ...

That's not what I said, and I feel it's a misrepresentation of my position. I was answering the question in this comment: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2211298

where the author said:

    Could you clarify why having
    more cash will not help?
My point was that the socio-economic conditions of some kids being dis-engaged, disinterested and actively disruptive would not be helped by throwing more cash at the school, or at the teachers.

Whether you blame the teachers, the kids, their parents, the social circumstances, the gangs, television, or whatever, the situation is that in some classes there is behavior that prevents any kind of learning. That behavior won't be fixed by mending copiers, or providing laptops.

That's my answer to the question that was asked.

In addition, however, I will say that yes, in some cases I do blame the kids, but in some cases I don't. I don't know that I would be any different given the circumstances that surround them. The challenge is to find a way to give them the skills, tools, abilities and opportunities to go where they can make something of themselves.

My wish for every child is that they have the opportunity to be the best they can. Sounds corny, and it's certainly Quixotic, but I put money and time into it.

And now I am going away for a while.


"I don't know that I would be any different given the circumstances that surround them."

So... change some of the circumstances. You can't change their home life, but you can spend appropriately to have classrooms that are free of banging pipes, heating/cooling issues, bird droppings, electrical problems, etc.

"...the socio-economic conditions of some kids being dis-engaged, disinterested and actively disruptive would not be helped by throwing more cash at the school..."

It looks like that spending "more money" on the problems this poster pointed out hasn't, in fact, been tried. Students who have crappy home life situations, then have to come sit in a rundown building with all the problems listed earlier might in fact not have a great learning attitude. Demonstrate that we as a society do, in fact, care enough to give them basics like copy paper and decent electrical systems, and - wait for it - they might actually have a different attitude.

This is all just crazy talk, of course.


I don't know how, or why, but people seem to persist in misunderstanding and misrepresenting me, willfully or otherwise. Perhaps I'm just not expressing myself clearly, or perhaps this is a lessonon why politicians never actually say anything - they know that no matter how careful, reasonable or balanced they are, they'll get misinterpreted.

However, I'll try once more. There's a tl;dr at the end.

Of course I'm not advocating letting these kids continue to rot in these hellholes. I'd love to see the money being spent on schools like this, and others, to give them decent rooms, decent equipment, and more teachers. And that's an essential part of any complete plan to tackle the problems that such schools, such kids and such teachers face.

But it's not the only thing. More cash, decent buildings, and better equipment won't fix the problem that some of the kids see thieving as the only way to get money. More cash, decent buildings, and better equipment won't fix the problem that some of the kids are in gangs that thrive on violence. More cash, decent buildings, and better equipment won't fix the problem that some of the kids have a bad attitude toward learning that has been inculcated in them since birth.

These kids need more. And yes, providing more will take money, but it won't be money spent in the schools. It will be money spent elsewhere in programs to catch them earlier, provide a balance to their lives, to let them see the opportunities that education can provide.

Of course all this takes money. And yes, spending money in the schools is one step among many. Perhaps it's the first step. Perhaps it's the step that will, in fact, provide the greatest value.

But there are problems that spending cash in the schools won't fix.

I could represent your position by saying that all we need to do to fix all the problems for all the kids in all the world is to provide shiny, well lit, well provisioned classrooms with great teachers. Clearly that would solve all the problems, and all the kids would then be engaged, enthusiastic, and eager to learn. But that position seems so ludicrous I can't believe you would hold it.

On the other hand, maybe you do.

But I suspect that we are none of us that far apart. I suspect that we all want to see facilities and opportunities provided that give the kids a real chance to make something of themselves, and to pursue a better life. But I also suspect that we all know that spending money on the buildings and the equipment is only part of the answer. An important part, perhaps the first part, but only part.

I'd love to see it tried, I know it will solve some of the problems. But I'm also pretty sure it won't solve them all, and those that it won't solve also need attention and time.

And money.


And lest anyone be in any doubt, let me try to make it clear with a TL;DR



His concluding sentence implies that he thinks more money is part of the answer, but not the whole answer.


"Pay them enough money and they'll start caring? Yea, right".

We should tell the same to CEOs and bankers.


But if CEOs and banker fail to please their customers, the company will do badly, and their boards will fire them. Government schools have no such constraints. They can waste money with impunity.


Sounds like school vouchers would do better. No?


Public schools could be improved if, instead of operating like prisons, they operated like recipients of public housing vouchers. Right now most public schools, especially the worst, are very similar to prisons. Students, like prisoners, have to attend. Studends have no choice to attend another institution or not to attend any institution. And, like prisons, public schools must accept everyone sent to them, no matter how bad. Predictably, schools, like prisons, end up being very depressing places.

In contrast, public housing vouchers are given to poor people who can then redeem them with any qualified landlord willing to take them. All parties, the poor person (tenant), the landlord, and the government, must agree before the rental transaction happens. The tenant can choose among among any privately-offered housing. The landlord can choose to reject any tenant that doesn't meet the landlord's standards. And the government only agrees to pay for housing that meets its own quality standards. The result is that good landlords have waiting lists of tenants who want to rent from them and bad landlords are shunned. Similarly, good tenants can find good housing while tenants with a history of bad and destructive behavior find fewer landlords who are willing to accept them.

Public schooling could be operated the same way. Poor people could receive vouchers redeemable with any qualifying school. And schools could set their own standards for the students they want to serve. Government would redeem vouchers only from schools that met its own quality standards. The result would be competition and waiting lists for the best schools, and pressure on students to be accepted into the best schools.

Public financing of college education works the same way. Students and colleges form voluntary agreements and government provides financing only for qualifying schools.


Two interesting stories I've crossed paths with are Bill Strickland, author of Making the Impossible Possible, and Sugata Mitra and his "child-driven education" and another referred to me by a friend:

+ http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/news/s_543015...

+ http://www.bill-strickland.org

+ http://www.socialedge.org/blogs/bill-strickland/topics/Bill%...

+ http://www.ted.com/talks/sugata_mitra_the_child_driven_educa...

+ http://www.hole-in-the-wall.com

+ http://www.georgejuniorrepublic.org/programs.html


I couldn't find out exactly which school the writer works at (I'm sure he wishes to remain anonymous as much as possible), however I was able to dig up some other data.

Per student expenditures for public schools in The Bronx can be found here (input district values of 08,09,10, or 11 for Bronx schools): https://www.nycenet.edu/offices/d_chanc_oper/budget/exp01/y2...

Per student spending in The Bronx appears to be around $17.5k. This is significantly higher than the national average (of about $11k). More notably it's the same as Stuyvesant High School (also in New York city, http://schools.nyc.gov/SchoolPortals/02/M475/AboutUs/Statist...) which is regarded as one of the top schools in the country: http://education.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/listings/high...

Given this I find little evidence to support the contention that Bronx schools need more money. I think it's quite likely that important things (like supplies and building maintenance) aren't being paid for, but I don't see evidence that this is due to lack of funds rather than mismanagement.


> Given this I find little evidence to support the contention that Bronx schools need more money. I think it's quite likely that important things (like supplies and building maintenance) aren't being paid for, but I don't see evidence that this is due to lack of funds rather than mismanagement.

That's an incredibly unfair conclusion to come to based on almost no information. For example, you compare the average expenditure per studend in the Bronx with the average at Stuyvesant - enrollment at Stuyvesant is based on a competitive exam (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stuyvesant_High_School#Enrollme...) and I've be willing to bet that Stuyvesant doesn't have to put up with SpEd and disciplinary problems the author's school does which could easily chew up a whole chunk of money.


Stuyvesant has the same per student expenditures for regular (non-special ed) students as for many schools in The Bronx (check my links).

As for Stuyvesant's students, yes, it is a special school which takes gifted students. So is your contention that it costs less money to educate gifted students? That building maintenance is cheaper? That gifted students require fewer equipment, can make do with fewer classrooms, or can do without textbooks?

I can buy that it's easier to teach gifted students, but I can't quite buy that it's cheaper to provide them the basic necessities like books, classrooms, and laptops.


> I can't quite buy that it's cheaper to provide them the basic necessities like books, classrooms, and laptops.

If unmotivated/uncaring students are constantly destroying books, and laptops and require more supervision (extra paraprofessionals for example), yes, I can buy that it's cheaper to provide motivated/well-behaved students necessities that they actually care for.

My point is that you took a broad spending per pupil number and immediately jumped to the conclusion that the problem was "mismanagement." Show me that the per-pupil numbers are the same and that the rates of consumption (books, etc), disciplinary, poverty/hunger, ESL, etc data are the same, then I might accept the problem is mismanagement. You haven't come close to doing that.


I went to Brooklyn Tech, like Stuyvesant it's one of the Specialized Science High Schools (at the time I went there were only 3, Stuy, Tech, and Bronx Science) with entrance via examination. I can tell you that my high school experience was completely different from the average NY high school experience. When everyone in your school is there because they're motivated and intelligent you have a much easier job of teaching. Furthermore, if the students do misbehave in any major way you can kick them out and send them to a non-gifted school. Regular schools don't have the same luxury.


I remember after 9/11 happened and Stuy classes had to be temporarily relocated to Brooklyn Tech, all my friends complained about what a terrible experience it was (the relocation, not necessarily 9/11) and how horrible BT was (I was in Canada by that time and missed out on that whole thing).

It's a whole different level. Stuyvesant takes the 99th percentile of NYC students. It's somewhat instructive, but mostly unfair, to compare it to other public schools. What's really interesting is the parent poster's mentality - as if it's the money thrown at kids that makes top schools.

That's not an excuse for ineffective education, but money is not what is primarily going to change things. For starters, figuring out a way to make NYC public schools less like prisons would help.


Yeah, I went to tech during that period. It didn't make much sense, I remember the writing on the desks, Stuy rules, tech sucks and vice versa.We were in high school after all. The interesting thing is that Stuy was still Stuy, just in Tech's building (we were in the building at different times, so the two schools never met). So when they said tech sucked, they're usually referring to the building, which we can all agree is not as nice as Stuy's but as far as the people and classes go I would say they're very similar. Stuy, Tech, and Bronx Science all took kids in the 90th+ percentile, in any event silly SSHS pride aside we can all agree it's unfair to compare it to other public schools.


I think besides requiring an exam to get entrance into the schools, it's a sense of pride that helps to push the students to excel. They're in that school because they're smart, so they work to uphold that image.

In regular schools, I assume, that they don't have the extra pressure (and pride) that motivates them. That motivation would have to come from within the students themselves, their parents/family/friends, and their teachers and role models.


Motivation, but also things like not being humiliated when you have to go to the bathroom. Most prison cells have toilets. Having to ask permission to go and then run around for 20 minutes looking for a key to the bathroom is degrading.

When things like that happen in prisons, BBC writes articles about it: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-11630152


The solution is to bring more full time PARENTS into the school. Sounds like an issue where teachers are subbing for a complete failure in parental guidance.

Money won't fix the behavior, but money can provide a legion of full-time parents to do some butt-kicking parental loving discipline to the hell raisers.


If we're talking about the parents of gang-member children who need metal detectors and locked windows to stop them taking weapons into school, locked toilets to stop them beating each other in there, who can't be trusted not to steal school property, then I'm not at all convinced that they would have both the willingness and the parenting skills to provide the sort of help that you seem to think they would.


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