November 18, 1994


The life of a circus lion consists of walking in circles in a cage. The most exciting thing that happens in his life is that he is allowed to jump through a hoop several times during each performance. If the King of Beasts lives like this, what can you expect?

To become a certified card-carrying professional, you have to jump through many hoops. After the exams of elementary school and high school, come more of the same in college. If you go on to earn a higher degree, there are more hoops: qualifying exams, sometimes a thesis to write. When you finally get the credential -that fancy union card- you breathe a sigh of relief that the whole damn process is finally over and you can now get down to doing a job and earning a living. A doctorate will allow you to teach in any university in the world -but not in any high school or elementary school in California.

But is it over? Yes it is, as long as you stay on the same track. If you switch, the whole bloody process starts all over again.

A person would have to be very hungry to subject himself to the indignity of applying for any type of California teaching credential. Unlike other job applications, the applicant has to pay for applying for for it, regardless of whether he gets the job or not. This is also true for the $8 an hour job of substitute teacher. After graduating from college, you still are required to take a test to see if you can write, understand the written word and solve a few simple math problems ($40), submit yourself to being finger printed like a common criminal($10) and certify that you haven't been convicted of a crime and that you are not a sex offender. You then pay $110 just to file the application. The crowning indignity is that, after all this, they won't even accept your personal check; it must be either a money order or a cashier's check.

This may not seem like too much for a dedicated teacher who intends to teach in California public schools for 20 years at about $25,000 per year, but to someone who just wants to do a little bit of it, it's absurd. The career teacher has to go through a similar procedure every 5 years to be re-certified. By then, he knows the routine well enough so that it's a lot easier.

Is there anything that a person can do about it? Yes; he can refuse to play the idiotic game -and that's about all that he can do!

In a talk entitled "Reform won't work; we need a revolution", Albert Shanker discusses in detail what is wrong with our educational system and how it has been corrected in one school in Germany. What he neglects to discuss is the important question: is it possible to have a revolution without destroying the existing structure?

In private businesses, revolutions occur when a company goes bankrupt, or the owner retires or dies. Can you demolish a school system without injuring the kids? It is sometimes done in a private school by simply changing the head. Usually that doesn't work either, because bureaucracies are not peculiar to public institutions, nor are school boards. I have heard it said that every time that a principal really manages to revolutionize a school, he does it by circumventing or ignoring the existing structure. The more rigid the structure, the harder that is to do.

A tribute to the stability of the California school bureaucracy is the fact that primary schools have been of about the same quality as they are now, for a long time. I went through the same soul searching when my daughter(now in her 40s) was ready for first grade in Berkeley, as parents do today, and for the same reasons.

I think that we must face an unpleasant fact. There are incurable diseases, and the California State Department of Education is one of them. It is the same disease that helped to destroy the Soviet Union -a well entrenched bureaucracy that is incapable of change.

There is a story that was told in Czechoslovakia during the communist regime. In Wenceslas Square in Prague a man is throwing up. Another man comes up to him, puts his hand on his shoulder and says, "I know just how you feel."

Whatever hope that there is for a better education for our children, it lies with the individual teacher or principal, not with the system. The system seems to me to be hopeless.

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