The Biggest Issues Facing Public Schools According to Teachers

Friday, September 28, 2012

The fourth graders in class 4302 at PS 51 were known throughout the school for being highly distracted and difficult to teach, whether in their own classroom or in the science lab. (Beth Fertig/WNYC)

After hearing from public education experts, scholars, and advocates, The Takeaway invited teachers from around the country to describe the students they worry about the most, and the issues that are of the biggest concern to them.

Juhyung Harold Lee teaches fifth grade at a New York City's public school in Chinatown. Phillipe Cunningham is a special education teacher with the Chicago public school system. Caroline Thompson is a preschool teacher in the Grant-Deuel School District in Revillo, South Dakota.

For Phillipe Cunningham and Caroline Thompson, the most challenging aspect of their jobs is helping children with disabilities, and making sure that they are included in all of the daily activities. For Juhyung Harold Lee, the challenge is not with any particular student, but rather the vast range of students, who have such different abilities and needs.

All three teachers have gone above and beyond the call of duty. Thompson describes trying to involve a student who is medically fragile, Cunningham talks about brushing an autistic student's teeth every morning before school, and Lee offers to call the home of one student to make sure he's awake in the morning to come to school. Unfortunately, this is all in a day's work for so many American teachers.

In South Dakota, the biggest issue among teachers at the moment is the open enrollment policy, which allows parents to opt to send their child to a different school district. Children are bounced around from school district to school district, based on things like sports programs or where their cousins attend school. 

Though Chicago's schools have made national news this month, Phillipe Cunningham said the strike was often misrepresented. "One of the biggest issues that we face in Chicago public schools is the funding issue — despite what the media made it sound like, it's not teacher pay, that's not what it's about." Cunningham says that he spent $4,000 of his own money last year just to get the supplies necessary for his classroom.

In New York, the issue is more one of standardized testing. "Words like results, achievement, progress, growth, proficiency, [and] accountability have become synonymous with standardized testing." Lee says that "teachers need to be accountable for the work that they do, but I'm held accountable in a lot of different ways. I don't think standardized tests are the way to do it." 


Phillipe Cunningham, Juhyung Harold Lee and Caroline Thompson

Produced by:

Maggie Penman and Mythili Rao

Comments [5]

Christine from Westchester

I'm all for mainstreaming students who can become part of a classroom collaboration but at what point are a student's medical or emotional issues severe enough that it's unfair for the teachers and other students to be part of that mainstreaming. The cost is of course a consideration but beyond that, there has to be a level where the child with the disabilities and the others simply cannot be expected to be managed in the same setting.

Sep. 28 2012 03:22 PM

Just read an outstanding study on the effects of trauma on children's ability to learn. Having dad come home drunk every night is to a child the same as you or I facing a bear in the woods. When flight response never turns off, the child unable to pay attention. Johnny's not ADHD - he's traumatized.

The most surprising part of the study was that children can be helped to overcome their lack of cognitive skills with volunteer coaches. One-on-one adult time telling them they are not stupid and can learn. Our community needs to help our children and our schools - volunteer!

Sep. 28 2012 01:39 PM
Barbara from Medford, MA

I can't think of any other profession where the professional is being evaluated on making progress where they have so little control over their situation. Teachers have absolutely no control over their students' life situations. They have no control over what each child is experiencing or has experienced. The kids may come to school hungry and can't learn; they may be witnessing and/or experiencing abuse at home and can't learn; they may have learning disabilities, both diagnosed and undiagnosed. How on earth is one person to be judged on the progress of 20-25 kids make when the teachers have zero control over where their kids are to start with?

Sep. 28 2012 11:18 AM
Larry Fisher from Brooklyn, N.Y.

Teachers deserve to earn a decent living and should not have to take money out of pocket to buy supplies. They should be evaluated by the students and not only based on how well the children's testing went.

Teachers can make a difference in a child's life, not only by what they learn but by how they learn; if a teacher can capture the imagination of a student and get them interested in a subject, and the student takes it upon themselves to learn more about a topic, the teacher has done their job ten times over.

Sep. 28 2012 09:37 AM
Jessie Henshaw from Way Uptown

It's really sad to have to face the quite ignored economic truth. If the "Biggest Issues Facing Public Schools" is what to do with kids who have the very least chance to make a success of themselves, it'll be an impossible burden on the society trying to afford it.

It looks like we're devoting growing resources to people who won't contribute economically to making similar care available for others like themselves.

There are dozens of those kinds of huge "backfire" effects, especially for our greatest desires. Many are actually so unachievable it's quite uneconomic to attempt them.

Sep. 28 2012 09:22 AM

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