- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 26, 2006

In her book “The Emergency Teacher,” former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Christina Asquith looks at the seminal issue that plagues most big-city school systems: the preponderant status quo that views paper-shuffling as the key to educating the masses. Teachers are told not to rock that boat. Racism, low expectations and grade inflation run rampant. The souring of Miss Asquith’s idealism began on Day 1.

Forget, indeed ignore, the devastating consequences that the overbearing one-size-fits-all philosophy has on America’s students, and, for that matter, America’s teaching corps. Classroom results are expected to be low, particularly in urban systems, because the majority of students are black and Hispanic. It’s far easier to segregate these children as special ed or undisciplined. And, when all else fails, inflate grades, promote children beyond their true academic standings and lie, by any means necessary, to ensure that money continues to pour into failed systems so that the machinations of the status quo continue to churn.

Miss Asquith is hardly alone among her peers or other once-private citizens who, in Miss Asquith’s words, enter the realm of public education “to make a difference in a child’s life.”

Teaching today remains an honorable profession. But bureaucratic pressures too often lead to either teacher burnout or the “social promotion” of veteran teachers into principal slots, for which they are unqualified, or as central administrators. The pay is always better; but the students are always on the losing end.

How Miss Asquith, a Jersey girl of immigrant parents, ended up an “emergency” teacher tells the real story. It was at the turn of this century, when severe teacher shortages forced the District of Columbia, Pennsylvania — in fact, all but three or four states — to hire “emergency certified teachers.” Teachers were lured with the promises of signing bonuses, training and the opportunity to become certified within a few years. Tens of thousands answered the call of the emergency. Miss Asquith, having learned firsthand as a journalist that our schools are failing our children, applied for a position in July 1999 and had her classroom in a mostly Hispanic middle school by the start of the Philadelphia school year.

Mind you, she was clueless, and says she tried to inform not only her principal, but central administrators and even Pennsylvania school authorities. Unfortunately, Miss Asquith’s own calls for an “emergency” fell on deaf ears.

The beat, as they say, goes on.

The East Coast used to be the pride of American public schooling, and Philadelphia was at the forefront. The City of Brotherly Love was headquarters for the Pennsylvania Railroad, and the so-called workshop for the world. As the Industrial Giant amid the Industrial Revolution, its leaders heard and answered the many calls for boys and men trained in various fields, because the city was “dominant in steam locomotives, textiles, the railroad, and all things iron, steel, and coal,” Miss Asquith writes.

D.C. Public Schools, during segregation and shortly after full-blown desegregation, was a standout system too, with a quality teaching corps and central administration that catered to parents. The voices of unions and other lobbying groups, however, with their costly demands, led to a dramatic downturn in the 1970s that has yet to be righted.

Most teachers and school officials will never read Miss Asquith’s book, but whether they are in D.C., Philly, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles or Harlem, they all know why the alarms are going off.

I am sending a copy of “The Emergency Teacher” to a woman named Peggy Cooper Cafritz. Mrs. Cafritz is a parent, an arts patron and cofounder of a public performing arts school. She also is the president of the D.C. Board of Education and first ran for office with the same can-do attitude as Miss Asquith. “I see,” Mrs. Cafritz said in 2000, “an even more pressing need in our city — the need to reform a public school system that has failed almost entirely to meet the basic needs of our children.”

Like so many others who have simply given up or burned out, Mrs. Cafritz is calling it quits. She says she will not seek a third term. “I think it would be best if another strong person ran,” Mrs. Cafritz told the Common Denominator newspaper. “I really think you need renewable energy on the board. These are not jobs for life.”

A longtime admirer of the gutsy Mrs. Cafritz, I wish her well. Of course, just because a politician says she doesn’t plan to seek re-election doesn’t necessarily mean she won’t toss her Mandarin blouse into another arena.

Perhaps the book will change her mind; perhaps not. What’s at stake in public schooling, in D.C. and elsewhere, is not the decision-makers, but whether our children are benefiting from their decisions. “The Emergency Teacher” proves our school systems have a considerable row to hoe.

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