By Gohar Galyan, 17, Marshall HS
Print This Post

Reprinted from November-December 1998

Photo illustration by Christina Quarles, 13, Willows

In the beginning of the semester, my Spanish 3 class had 53 students. About 10 had no chairs so they sat on the window sills. Another five stood, leaning against the wall. I thought about writing about it for my school paper so I went to talk with the head counselor. He said that since it was an advanced class, he expected many students to drop it. Where was the support and encouragement? They should be telling us, “You can do it!”

It’s upsetting to look around and see all the problems at my school. My psychology book is from 1986; I waited two months for a calculus book; when my Spanish teacher was out for three weeks, we had three different subs, none of whom progressed a page in the book; the copy machine in the office often breaks down, making it hard for teachers to make copies. If you are wondering why I don’t change schools, it is because I love Marshall. The problems facing my school are not unique to my school. They occur throughout the district.

My teachers, too, are aware of the problems. The teacher for whom I have the greatest respect told my dad at back-to-school night that if he had teenagers, he would work three jobs to send them to a private school. The same teacher, who has taught for more than 40 years and has taught in other countries and states, always alludes to the administrators’ indifference. He says how the “people downstairs” don’t care about what is happening in the classrooms, and that is why they left the classrooms to begin with. He says that when you enter their offices, it’s like walking into a little palace.

Like my teacher, I was under the impression that the district didn’t really care about what happened to us “little people” who are stuffed in a room with 40 others without air conditioning.

Then I went to see Mr. Bob Collins, the head of the high school division at his district office downtown. The lobby of the office was crowded with little cubicles. There seemed to be a lot of commotion: it was eight in the morning and the phones were ringing off the hook as school administrators tried to figure out how to deal with the new bilingual education requirements. When I met Mr. Collins, it seemed like he had already done a full day’s work. He looked like he had just finished yelling at somebody on the phone and my appointment was one more thing he had to deal with.

When I told him that many of the students and teachers think that the district doesn’t care, he looked shocked and angry.

“Why would they have that perception?”

Well, I said, we have dirty bathrooms, old books and teachers who can’t teach.

“Let me see your textbooks.”

I pulled my 12-year-old psychology book out of my backpack. It looks like someone had dropped it in a puddle on their way to school. The pages are wavy with water damage, stained, stuck together and marked by many previous students.

Mr. Collins flipped through it. “I would tell your teacher to get you a new book.”

I later asked my teacher why we couldn’t get new books, but he said he wasn’t sure he was going to teach AP Psych. next year, so it might be a waste of money, and besides, the school didn’t have money for new books.

But that’s not what Mr. Collins said. He said, “The district provided Marshall High over $100,000 to purchase new texts … So when you say you don’t have new books, I suggest you see your principal.”

When I mentioned it to my principal, he said, “There is money for new books, and you should talk to your teacher again.” The principal said he would try to get me a new book by next semester.

Mr. Collins stressed that good teaching is essential to students’ success—and admitted that some teachers cannot teach well. “It is fair to say that in any high school there are some outstanding teachers and some that need significant help.”

He noted that teaching doesn’t attract highly qualified candidates. To emphasize his point, he asked me what I want to do when I “grew up.” I said I wanted to go into law. He said a beginning lawyer makes $65,000 to $75,000 a year, about twice as much as most teachers. Think about it: why would someone who could earn a lot more money and get a lot more respect go into teaching? I know I wouldn’t.

“The issue is how much do we value teachers and teaching? Do we value the profession enough to compensate it?” asked Mr. Collins.

That wasn’t the only big question that arose as I researched the problems with our schools. How do we know that teachers are doing their job? How much money is enough? Who decides how the money is spent? And if student test scores are low, whose fault is it? I talked to two school board members, my principal, one of my teachers and Mr. Collins and at the end one thing became clear: everyone is pointing fingers and no one seems to want to take responsibility. The teachers and administrators say the students are responsible for getting a good education. The administrators and students say some of the teachers aren’t doing a good job. The teachers and students don’t think the administrators care. Everyone thinks that the system is falling apart. Amidst all this clamor one thing seems to get lost: a good public education.

Improving the quality of teaching

Firing bad teachers is useless, according to school board member David Tokofsky, who used to teach at Marshall. When the district fires a teacher, the district is forced to lower its standards to in order to find a replacement.

The lack of teachers can be explained by today’s job market. Most of today’s brightest teens are not going to become tomorrow’s teachers. Instead they will choose to go into a field where the paychecks can keep up with the rate of inflation.

Those who do teach often use the profession as a step job and soon move on to a “real” career. Because of the urgent need for teachers, hiring standards are low. On May 19, the Los Angeles Times commented “that becoming a teacher in California is nearly as easy as getting a job at McDonald’s.” All an applicant needs to apply for a job as a teacher in the district is a bachelor’s degree and a passing score on the C-BEST Test. Candidates are trained while they work on “emergency credentials.” In fact, 10 to 20 percent of the district’s teachers teach on emergency credentials, Tokofsky said. He added that 65 percent of the district’s math classes are being taught by someone who didn’t major in math in college.

There are many highly qualified teachers who have other opportunities, but choose to teach. They make a difference but (unfortunately) they are overshadowed by those who use the profession as a step job and become teachers because they can.

What do low test scores mean?

Half of the students who enter the Cal State system have to take remedial classes in English and math. California is in the 32nd percentile when it comes to the Stanford 9 tests. To me, these numbers demonstrate that we are not learning as much as we should.

But everyone I talked to had a different response.

School Board President Victoria Castro said that scoring below the national average does not mean that we are doing poorly. Stanford 9 compares how the students in California do in contrast to the students in the other 49 states. Since the test scores are curved, someone always has to be in the bottom.

When I told Board Member David Tokofsky about this, he bluntly replied that he didn’t know what she was talking about. Mr. Tokofsky thinks that scores on standardized tests should be used to measure a teacher’s performance.

Mr. Collins said, “I don’t put the quality of teaching as being determined by a standardized test given to a student the first year he/she enters university. It’s important, it concerns me but I’m far more interested in other factors that a student learns in the classroom.”

Mr. Collins argued that standardized tests don’t always measure a student’s knowledge in the order that the student studied it. For example, students learn U.S. History in the eighth and the tenth grades but the Stanford 9 tests the students on U.S. History in the ninth grade. He also said that the tests are not fair to “urban populations”—minorities and those from low-income groups.

My principal, Tom Abraham, said students score low on the tests because they have bad test-taking skills and they’re not being prepared specifically for those tests. (But if the Cal State entrance exam measures basic skills in math and English, why do we need to prepare for them? Basic math and English skills as well as test-taking skills are things that we should have studied and practiced throughout elementary, middle and high school.)

My history teacher Bob Grakal said kids are to blame for their low scores. Look at your class, he told me. Half of you don’t read the book on the night that it’s assigned, so we can’t have a discussion. You wait until the night before the test. He added that kids are distracted from their school work by sports, jobs, boyfriends, girlfriends and after school activities.

As I think about all that’s been said about this, it doesn’t add up. No one wants to be held accountable. They’re afraid of being blamed for students’ failures. I can see that it’s unjust to blame the teachers alone for low scores. I can see that there are a variety of factors which are responsible for the disappointing scores, and a student’s performance and participation in class without a doubt plays a big role on the student’s success in college as well as on standardized tests. But there isn’t much a student can do when he is placed in a class with 40 of his peers; neither is there a lot that a teacher can do when the kids start falling through the cracks.

We’re tired of the government’s empty promises

Politicians often promise educational reform to win their elections. This year the candidates for governor were all talking about how to make the school system accountable—and they all know exactly how to do it. But once they’re in office, politicians’ “perfect-on-paper” ideas evaporate. Four years ago, when Pete Wilson was campaigning for governor, he promised computers in the classrooms, drug and violence-free schools, removing red tape so that parents and teachers have more control, and getting parents more involved in schools. “Improving our schools will take fundamental change,” he wrote in a Los Angeles Times column in 1994. But as a middle school and now a high school student, I haven’t seen these changes.

It’s no wonder that so many of us think that reform is a bunch of hot air. I tried to interview a math teacher at Marshall for this article. He refused. I followed him down the hall for half an hour after school but he wouldn’t change his mind. He said, What’s the use? There is always talk of change, but nothing happens.

Governor Wilson was quoted in the Los Angeles Times in August telling elementary students, “You’re every bit as bright as those kids growing up in foreign lands. We want you to have the maximum opportunity.” During one of the meetings at LA Youth, we laughed and someone said that he sounds like a coach giving a pep talk to a team that has lost for the 12th year.

Sugarcoated answers

During the interviews, I felt that many of the answers I received to my questions were covering up the truth. When I asked Mrs. Castro about inadequate subs, she made everything seem simple. She said that teachers have a right to request a certain sub. If that sub is not available, they get whoever is there. And that sub is responsible for following the teacher’s lesson plans. If the teacher is not happy because the sub didn’t follow the lesson plan, then they can request not to have that sub back. But that sub can be placed into another classroom and if it happens again, then the principal is responsible for filing an “inadequate service” card. But when I asked my principal how many "inadequate service" cards he had filed during his two-year tenure at Marshall, Mr. Abraham said he couldn’t answer that because it was a “personnel matter.” Had he filed any at all? That was a personnel matter too.

The requirement for subs isn’t much: a bachelor’s in anything and a passing score on the C-BEST test. They, like the teachers, aren’t required to have teaching experience. According to Castro, those who hire the subs are supposed to look for skills such as general discipline in class management, patience, a sense of humor, a sense of responsibility and the ability to follow directions. But as a student, I can tell those who hiring the subs are sleeping on the job. I have had subs who ran the class like a circus and who couldn’t help the students with the simple assignment that the teacher had left.

When I asked Mr. Abraham if there was grade inflation, he steadfastly denied it, saying that there is deflation instead of inflation. But the scores in the L.A. Times and my own experience show otherwise. A report in a May issue of the Los Angeles Times stated that an A+ student in 1987 earned a 618 on the verbal section of the SATs and 639 in math. In 1997, the A+ student earned 608 in verbal and 637 in math—a decrease of 10 points in verbal and 2 in the math scores. The trend was the same with lower achieving students: a student with a grade point average of a C earned a 443 in the verbal and 439 in math in 1987. But in 1997 a student with a grade point average of a C earned 17 points less on the verbal and five points less on the math.

Mr. Abraham said, “I don’t think there’s grade inflation because there’s so many students getting Ds and Fs. But I can’t dispute a survey.”

I have had classes where I got an A for filling out worksheets. According to the Los Angeles Times, many teachers accept comic books for classroom reading. Many students who get As, Bs and Cs in the AP classes cannot pass the AP exams. Why? I believe it’s because of grade inflation.

Castro claimed that in order to retain good teachers, the district was offering competitive salaries, good benefits and opportunities to grow. But the only thing that Grakal, who has been teaching for many years could say is, "that it is better than it used to be." Abraham agreed.

We must work together

Even with all the faults with our system, there are many positive things taking place. More students are involved with the AP program, the academic decathlon program, and speech and debate teams, which regularly compete with and win over private school students. Even with all the unqualified teachers, there are some great ones. My three-pound calculus book (the one I waited two months for) is great. In addition, the drop out rate has decreased.

Students can do their share to make sure that they receive a good education. They can take rigorous classes and do the assigned work. In addition, they can report to their teachers and principals when they have an inadequate sub. Superintendent Ruben Zacarias has allocated a large sum of money for textbooks. There is no reason why any student in the LAUSD should be without a book. Mr. Collins said, “You tell me the student that doesn’t have a text book, and I will walk out there and put a new textbook in their hands.”

And if you want clean bathrooms, keep them clean. It is us, the students, who stuff paper towels in the sink, throw wet balls of paper at the ceiling and tag the walls. Most schools have school-based management meetings where students can bring up issues which concern them. It is also at these meetings were issues like the dress code are discussed and often passed. Because of lack of student representation in these meetings, administrators and teachers are often able to pass regulations which the students might not like.

We have to start taking responsibility. We have to stop pointing fingers and start working as a team if we want to get the education we deserve.