The Biggest Issues Facing Public Schools According to Teachers

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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."