Public Comment

Commentary: Whom Do We Blame?

By Alan Miller
Friday November 30, 2007

In last Friday’s issue of Berkeley Daily Planet, Jonathan Stevens asks one of the most discussed questions today: “Whom do we blame....” for the failures in public education? This is easy to answer: let’s start with the citizens of California, who passed Proposition 13 and began the process of starving what was once considered the premier public education system in the country. That initiative quickly gutted the state budget and made it unlikely that, without an appeal, California could ever add the per pupil funding expenditures necessary to achieve the results citizens say they desire. California has the highest class sizes in the nation and moves between 40th and 48th in per pupil expenditures (depending upon which numbers one uses). Thank God for Mississippi, one of the poorest states in the nation, and one of the few to be as consistently stingy as we are with our students. Nina Simone said it all in her classic song! And thanks to Berkeley citizens for Measure A and all of the bond measures which have supplemented the district budget.  

Stevens announces that more money for teachers and teaching won’t “solve the problem of teachers fleeing the field.” I urge him to talk to teachers five years into the profession who are aware that their dreams of owning a home will go unfulfilled. Every teacher (and probably many parents) knows a former colleague who left for greener pastures; many of us know several. There’s the beloved former teacher who told me many times, “I could never do this if (my husband) didn’t earn so much.” It’s one thing to make financial sacrifices for five years; it’s quite another to accept an entire career of such sacrifices. A teacher at the beginning of her career has a much different perspective than one leaving the profession. As a result, those credential classes with new teachers Stevens speaks of are more like 12-step meetings or sessions for returning war veterans; a bunker mentality dominates. Fortunately I earned my credential in a “working teacher” program which meant that my classmates were mostly veteran teachers from outside the state. Conversations with experienced teachers may feature the same themes, but will function differently and affect the participants differently, too! What frustrates a new teacher may inspire a veteran teacher, and vice versa. As we begin to experience the present teacher shortage, the State of California must find money to ensure both competitive salaries and excellent working conditions. All teachers have a brother or sister or parent whose jaw drops when we describe these facets of our work experience. 

Stevens prefers that any budget enhancements go to improved working conditions—ironically, also a cost item—that will “guarantee teachers the opportunity to practice their trade in peace and safety.” After some dozen years serving on the BFT negotiations team, I have heard district negotiators repeatedly refer to working conditions as cost items. (That’s why schools are exempted from Cal/OSHA provisions; the state is unwilling to commit the funds necessary to ensure high quality working conditions). Over the years, I have noted many improvements teachers and the district desire delayed because of their cost. Due to Measure A, our district doesn’t have to make those kind of hard decisions, but before the initial maintenance measure was enacted I, as the BFT safety officer, spent many days checking classrooms throughout the district for adequate heat and lighting, spot-checking for mold, and ensuring that each classroom phone could access the office. So: Mr. Stevens wants a more intimate environment in which students can be inculcated with the virtues of plurality and social justice? In other words, Mr. Stevens wants more classrooms? Well, it’s gonna cost real dollars to do so. How else to explain the district’s failure to implement the state’s ninth grade class reduction? Not enough money and not enough space. I share Stevens’ concern about improving working conditions; at BHS, for the last several years, more than half of the teachers have shared classrooms. That means that teachers lack the opportunity to make each classroom a viable and productive learning space. That’s why the South of Bancroft Committee is so committed to building additional classrooms and why all of the new structures on the campus are so important; keeping the Old Gym means keeping teachers in substandard classrooms and ensuring that we will never have enough. The new structures at BHS, along with the increased voluntarism on site and new leadership are responsible for a better learning environment and, I believe, happier students and teachers. Stevens has it half right: we deserve it all, and only improved salaries and working conditions will draw attract the teachers we need to fill California’s classrooms—on the scale we will need, there aren’t enough of the martyrs and nuns to fill those burgeoning vacancies. Talk to a veteran teacher: there are fewer martyrs in that generation. 

After 20 years in Bay Area classrooms, I have seen the same fights that he has seen. For starters, most of the fights I have witnessed at Berkeley High School, where he worked for a year, and where I have toiled for some 17 years, are not racially charged. They are—no solace to me, an African-American male—intra-racial fights; that is, they are fights within groups, not interracial, between members of different groups. Additionally, they are usually single gender; few teens seek out members of the opposite sex to fight, honoring that old code: If you’re a boy, you should never hit a girl! Fortunately, few of these fights repeat; our dean and counselors usually bring the parties together, counsel the students and negotiate a truce, inform the parents, send the parties home for a few days and move on to the next fight.... whenever that occurs. Mr. Stevens lamentably succumbs to the same spirit of hyperbolic sensationalism he rues. I don’t see fights on campus for days or weeks at a time... though I have come to expect them close to the Thanksgiving and the December holidays. How’s that for irony? Furthermore, the number of fights on campus has shrunken markedly over the years. 

Finally, I have learned too that what happens in my classroom may not be happening in the classroom next door. This is also true of districts. As someone who has worked in West Contra Costa, Oakland Unified and Berkeley, I know how dangerous it is to compare districts and schools. Each district, each school, each classroom has its own ethos. Stevens makes a big mistake in comparing such different environments; they cannot be conflated and compared easily. Two of them remain in receivership, under the control of a state administrator. You can’t come to Berkeley High School without noticing that there is something good happening every day somewhere on campus: guest speakers, student presentations, art displays, computer programming, sporting events or exercise, field trips. You can hardly turn your head without hearing the words “achievement gap” and seeing myriad attempts to address it. Much of what makes Berkeley different is the money that has been made available to its teachers through the BHSDG, In Dulce Jubilo, and BSEP. Don’t go to You Tube for horror and success stories about education in your local district: volunteer, join a committee, talk to children, call a teacher. You might learn something. You might like what you hear.  


Alan E. Miller, a former Berkeley Federation of Teachers vice president, teaches English at Berkeley High School.