Former teacher Laura Rondazzo went viral on April 8, with her “Why I Quit Teaching” YouTube video. She received over 2,500 comments in support of her complaints from teachers experiencing similar heartbreak, and their testimony provides a window into understanding the decades-long and well-documented Connecticut teacher shortage.
Education in United States is a Saharan story of desertification. We daily read more stories of underachievement and disenchanted, demoralized teachers. The pandemic only highlighted the failures of the bloated educational bureaucracy.
More spending and more regulation are demonstrably not the solution.
The United States spends more per public school student — figures range from just over $12,000 to $14,439 according to most recent statistics) than any other country — and yet we rank far below other nations in all academic metrics. Connecticut spends far above the national average, about $23,135 per student, but still suffers from teacher burnout, shortages, and only an average adult literacy rate — about 12% of adults in Connecticut are illiterate.
At the same time, teachers like Rondazzo and countless others testify to the fact that class sizes have increased while teachers, as a matter of course, understand that they will spend their own salaries purchasing supplies for their classrooms, in an area where it has never been easier to access low-cost materials and mass-market books.
The allocation of funds clearly isn’t working where it matters — in classrooms, for the sake of the children.
As schools in Connecticut and nationwide debate the best policies for returning to full in-person learning this fall, and the best use of federal COVID education funds, we should also take the opportunity to consider more fundamental questions: whether or not to mandate masks or vaccines, offer hybrid options or online classes, are important considerations. But the heart cries of teachers like Rondazzo point to a deeper crisis that must not be passed over.
The primary cause of the failures of the schools is that the system has forgotten what a human child is and what schools are for.
Teachers will tell you that their job is hard — long hours, ever-increasing paperwork, and playing scapegoat for both parents and administration. What makes it worthwhile? Ronazano points to the relationships teachers enjoy with students, the ‘a-ha’ moments when a child who hated writing discovers a passion for self-expression, and finding new classroom techniques that win over each year’s unique, irreplaceable human persons.
But the structure has placed those moments on the endangered species list. Since the 1930s, American schools have increasingly turned to data-driven analyses, which require data collection almost exclusively exercised in the form of testing.
Education doesn’t require testing. It doesn’t even require grades. A true education is not primarily a science, it is an art demanding only adults with the practical and creative capacity to see the individual child, understand the goals set before them, and take the steps necessary to engage the child’s own desire to learn. Real learning embraces the reality of the child and, using human creativity, finds practical means to help children grow from infancy to flourishing adulthood in a variety of circumstances.
Teachers don’t need more regulation. They need less. They don’t need training in how to use the latest SIS or state standards documentation system. If the current crisis in education shows us anything, it is that teachers and parents simply want to get back to basics.
Teach children to read. Teach them to write and cipher. Teach them to think clearly and then let them play and explore. Give children the tools they need to become lifelong and independent learners — those tools are simply confidence that their natural curiosity is their strongest asset, the ability to observe accurately and remember what they observe, the ability to communicate their knowledge and experience beautifully to other people of all different ages.
Take everything else away until our schools can support teachers who understand that the schools’ primary role in a child’s life is to draw out their potential, equip them with habits of self-discipline and the conviction of their human worth, and then get out of the way to see how they flourish.
Can the education system do this? Is it possible to reset the entire clock and rebuild? We do not know, but we do know that something must change. Emerging from the pandemic gives us the chance to make that change.
Parents have taken different approaches to improving their children’s education. Many have simply opted to leave, convinced that the system is irretrievably broken. They make considerable sacrifices in order to home educate or start their own schools, giving up careers and taking on the monumental task of full responsibility for their children’s education. Homeschooling and the emerging classical education movement should inspire not envy, but imitation, for rebuilding public education systems and methods.
Others stay, either by choice or necessity, and try to make a difference. Erika Sanzi, of Good Schools Hunting, is one example of a former teacher seeking to make positive changes and give these parents more choices to benefit their children and hopefully inspire administrators to stop trying to preserve their own authority and start making choices in the interest of children.
Parent voices matter, and they matter greatly, especially at the local level. Parents with concerns about the system should work together with teachers like Rondazzo to pressure administration to return to basics, cut back on testing, and think outside the box to improve school life for children.
Rahm Emmanuel once said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” His motives may have been less-than-savory, but we should consider his observation seriously. The educational crisis of our time can become the catalyst for positive change in our own state and throughout the nation.
Erika J. Ahern