Conversations With Teachers- Part 2 (of many)

As some may be aware, I am a substitute teacher in a public school district.  My wife is a contracted teacher in the same district, but at another school.  Obviously, being a substitute teacher does not pay all the bills even with my wife’s lucrative salary so I also work full time at another higher paying job.  However, if I had to pick, I find substitute teaching more gratifying and interesting.  I have been doing this now for the 8th year and work five days a week as a substitute.  Naturally, I have seen changes in the school over these eight years and met many a certified teacher.  I still do not know what some of the specialist teachers actually do; I rarely see them with students.  Perhaps they do, but I just have not seen it.

Today’s installment is about Mr. J…or should I say Dr. J (no- not Julius Erving of the Sixers).  He is quite proud of the fact that the name posted outside his 7th grade math classroom says, “Dr. J—-.”  I remember the point when he went from mister to doctor.  He achieved his doctorate from Widener University in Pennsylvania.  I learned that the school district actually reimbursed him 85% of the costs of that doctorate degree.  I do not know how many credits one needs to achieve a PhD in education from Widener, but the cost is $1,004 per credit.  Assuming it takes 24 credits, that amounts to $24,096 of which the school district ponied up $20,482.

Now mind you, Dr. J did not learn anything new about math or teaching math.  His PhD was in education, not mathematics.  During a lull between classes- teachers get a mandatory 40 minute lunch period and 40 minute planning period each day per the collective bargaining contract- we began discussing his doctorate and what he planned to do with it.  He proudly removed the leather bound copy of his thesis on charter schools.  After thumbing through it, I asked him what was the basic gist of his findings.  His reply was what most people already know: some work and some don’t.  In fact, most academic research on charter schools indicate an approximate 50% success rate after 3 years.

I proffered my hypothesis for the success of charter schools: those that are dedicated to some specific program tend to do well.  For example, a local charter high school dedicated to the performing arts has been around for ten years with great academic performance.  Most of their graduates go on to college, or a performing arts academy.  I likewise pointed out a successful charter middle and high school in Philadelphia dedicated to the sciences that also has a great academic record, high rates of graduation and college admittance.

He countered with another charter school dedicated to technology that failed and lost its charter when it was discovered it only had eight working computers.  I noted that it really wasn’t a technology charter school, but one parading as such.  Hence, it really wasn’t the type of charter school I was thinking about.  Dr. J thought my hypothesis was interesting.

I further hypothesized that such schools tend to be successful because there is a common bond among the students be it science, math, or performing arts.  He did note that in his thesis research the one thing he found was that the level of parental interest in their child’s education was elevated among charter school parents.  I noted that should have been obvious since they took the time and effort to put their child in a charter school.  He also noted that despite the success or failure of the charter school, students and parents had a higher regard for the charter school experience than they did for public school education.

The talk turned to his reasons for the doctorate and I foolishly assumed he wanted to at some point move into school administration.  He told me that was not his motivation; he liked getting home at 3:45 to help his kids with their homework.  Being in administration would require more hours at school with no set time to get home.  Instead, the reason he got the doctorate, he admitted, was the generous bump in pay.  Not knowing that he left out the pay scale grid one day I was substituting for him, I realized that he went from $55,000 per year to a whopping $72,500 per year by virtue of having “PhD” after his name.

Perhaps the other advantage Dr. J has is in class selection.  Seventh and eighth graders are divided into three groups.  I first noticed something weird regarding a 7th grade student named Angelina P. who, in my opinion, was a rather smart and mature girl for 13 years of age.  One group is considered the “high end” group, a second is considered the “ESL group” although an ESL teacher is not assigned to them on a continuous basis, and the third group is considered the “Special ed” group (they do have a co-teacher).  For whatever reason, Angelina P. ended up in the ESL class and even though Hispanic, she knows not a lick of Spanish and speaks perfect English.

So I asked Miss K, the social studies teacher in 7th and 8th grade, how someone like Angelina ended up in that class and not Dr. J’s homeroom which is the high end class.  I also noticed that the 8th grade math teacher had the high end homeroom.  Miss K informed me that students were assigned to classes based upon their performance on the math section of the PARCC test and another gauge of math ability on a test Dr. J administers.

It would appear that Dr. J has found another advantage to his PhD- he essentially gets to pick his homeroom and assign students into one of three categories based upon math tests regardless of their English language abilities or performance in science, social studies, or language arts.  Unfortunately, students like Angelina end up the losers and it is people like her who would most likely benefit from a charter school education rather than the assignment to a classroom based on a test performance.

Hence, we have a teacher with a doctorate degree- largely paid for by the school district- administering a test and using results of a test his union largely disagrees with to assign students to various classes.  He possesses a doctorate not in mathematics, but in education which is long on theory and short on practical outcomes.  He did so not to advance in his profession other than on the pay scale.  And, incidentally, the doctoral thesis proved nothing but commonsense.

Nothing against Dr. J- he merely took advantage of something that should not have been there in the first place.  Such is the state of public education.