Our experience in public education couldn’t be more different than the cynical and gloomy picture painted by Jonathan Stephens in his recent editorial. (The State of Education, Nov. 23.) As longtime Berkeley teachers (Malcolm X and Willard), as parents of students who have nearly completed their education in Berkeley public schools and as leaders of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, we have a good perspective from which to view public education in our community.
When we look at public education in Berkeley, we see a caring, committed community of teachers and families working as hard as they possibly can to make sure every student learns and thrives.
In preschool and elementary school, teachers create lessons and activities to meet state standards in developmentally appropriate ways. They work with families, seek out social services for children, and collaborate with each other to improve their teaching practice. In middle and high school, teachers find ways to cut through the distractions of adolescence to prepare students to think critically and have access to the skills and information they need to function in our community. They work long into the evening preparing lessons, grading papers and leading the extracurricular activities that teens value so much. At Berkeley Adult School, teachers provide literacy, language and job skills classes so that students can improve their economic status through lifelong learning. At every level, teachers are striving to eliminate the achievement gap between racial groups and socioeconomic classes.
There are indeed obstacles to success in this endeavor. Excessive standardized testing, underfunded and contradictory mandates from the government and a shortage of qualified and experienced teachers frustrate our best intentions, but we have found that Berkeley teachers struggle against these obstacles and find amazing and creative ways to succeed despite the odds. Step into any school in Berkeley to see the fruits of our labor.
While it is true that many teachers enter the profession as idealists, hoping to change their community for the better, it does not follow that adequate resources for education, fair salaries and good working conditions are not necessary. All of us know of talented teachers who have left the district or the profession to make a more livable salary. All of us know of teachers who can’t afford to live in the community where they teach, who have no chance to buy a home in Berkeley or who struggle to raise their own families in this high priced area.
None of us believe that simply throwing money in the general direction of education will solve these problems, but a targeted use of increased resources is crucial to improvement. To find and keep the best possible teachers, our communities need to offer excellent salaries and working conditions. We need to keep class sizes small, compensate teachers for the extra duties they take on outside the classroom, and provide teachers and parents with authentic involvement in school governance and reform. Luckily in Berkeley our citizens are very generous and supportive of public education and they have voted to tax themselves more to provide some of these things. Not all communities are so lucky, and some of these items can only come through sharply focused and disciplined priorities on the part of School Boards. To say that money is irrelevant to providing the best possible education for children is just flat out wrong.
Despite the well-publicized challenges, public education is alive and well in Berkeley. Great things are happening every day. Don’t just take our word for it—get involved in a Berkeley public school, and come and see for yourself!