One Angry Teacher: Cutting CA School Year by 6 Weeks Would Be a Disaster

One Angry Teacher: Cutting CA School Year by 6 Weeks Would Be a Disaster

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Last night during his State of the State address, Jerry Brown alluded to the deep spending cuts ahead as he tries to eliminate California’s $25 billion budget deficit. He also made it clear that the cuts will be much, much worse if voters don’t approve (or aren't even allowed to vote on) a $12 billion tax extension to fund public schools.

As a high school teacher in a low-income school, I know what the best-case scenario means: more cuts to education that we can ill afford. As for the worst-scenario, state Treasurer Bill Lockyer laid that out in a recent speech in Berkeley: without the tax extension Brown is seeking, the school year might have to be cut by six weeks.

Californians invariably put public schools at the top of their list of things we need to improve. Yet with every doomsday budget passed, education is among the first areas to be slashed. Cutting education further would be like kicking a dead horse—a horse that died decades ago, and all that’s left to boot around are the bones.

Let me tell you how it looks to educators down here in the bone yard as we contemplate the possibility of an even shorter academic year.

Because of how education is run in this country, and because social services are sorely lacking in our low-income communities, every year our students come to school further and further behind. We scramble to teach more than a year’s worth of material in nine months. Sometimes, we succeed. But then the kids have summer break, and during those three months, they forget the concepts we’ve worked hard to teach them.

So we spend much of the next school year catching them from what they forgot during the summer, only to have them forget it again. The problem is worse, of course, for students who don’t speak English at home.

Equally challenging are the behavioral problems that result from students having so much time off during the summer. The biggest difficulty inner-city teachers face is classroom management. Getting kids to sit quietly in their seats to read, and to treat each other with respect, is not easy. Thus, the hardest period of the school year is September and October, when students are still hyped up over whatever they did on the concrete streets all summer. It takes weeks to get them to calm down and focus.

For these reasons, the latest movement in education is toward year-round schooling. Just last week, for example, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles proposed adding another 20 days to the parochial school calendar, giving the city’s Catholic schools one of the longest academic years in the country.

The idea of cutting six weeks from a school year that needs to be extended isn’t a move backwards; it’s falling back dead.

It’s worth remembering that when rankings come out highlighting the superior education systems in nations like South Korea, oftentimes these countries have year-round schools. In addition, teachers in these countries are considered to be among the most important professionals in society, and they are compensated accordingly.

In his State of the Union address, President Obama acknowledged this global reality, saying, “In South Korea, teachers are known as ‘Nation Builders.’ Here in America, it’s time we treated the people who educate our children with the same level of respect.” Though it’s nice to hear proclamations like Obama’s, frankly, every president in my lifetime has said something along these lines.

If we want our teachers to be “Nation Builders,” we have to make teaching a lucrative career. The president called upon young people to become teachers, but the sad reality of our broken education system today is that he might as well been asking them to take on a career of scrubbing toilets.
When I ask my 150 high school students, “Who wants to be a teacher,” guess how many raise their hands? None. They see the rundown cars in the staff parking lot; America’s youth aren’t interested in a job where all you can afford to drive is a used 2000 Saturn SC-1. You can’t build a nation with pity, and unfortunately, that’s how most people---even young people---view public school teachers. Upon learning I’m a high school teacher, I can’t tell you how many people have responded, “Oh, I’m sorry.”

At the federal and state level, if we are serious about improving education, we should be adding days to the school year. And we should be turning teaching into a profession people respect. In our society, that means money. Yet a shorter school year means a further shrinking of our already humble paychecks.

We must put a halt to chopping up the corpse that is public education. There’s nothing left as it is.

Matt Amaral is a writer and high school English teacher in the East Bay. He is also the founder of www.teach4real.com, a website dedicated to teachers in our toughest schools.