Offering a 'Womb to Dorm Room' Approach to Education

Wednesday, September 18, 2013 - 04:00 AM

A colleague of mine posted a lament to Facebook after just the second day of school, stating that he had never been “this beaten, this dejected, this stressed, felt this hopeless, and been this exhausted in the 10 years I’ve been teaching.” This refrain is common among new teachers and veterans alike. It’s easy to see why. After more than a decade of reforms, starting with No Child Left Behind in 2001 through Race to the Top today, we have not seen improved classroom results but rather a relentless and demoralizing assault on teachers.

The hue and cry of the education reform movement has been “Education is broken! We have to do something!” Despite implementing failed or unproven programs such as merit pay, the “death penalty” for poor performing schools, non-stop test prep and testing, for-profit charter schools, the Common Core, longer schools days, and tying teacher tenure (and even employment) to test results, there has been little improvement. The question is: Can we find a better way?

Diane Ravitch, in her compelling new book called Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, says yes, there is a better way.

As the title implies, much of the book focuses on the motives of school reformers, and while that is an eye-opening read in and of itself, perhaps of greater interest to the classroom teacher is the final third of the book, in which Ravitch proposes her own solutions to the problems that plague America’s schools.

Ravitch advocates what I’d call a “Womb to Dorm Room” approach, starting with helping women get adequate prenatal care, to ensuring that college is affordable. While she acknowledges that this is a costly endeavor, she asserts that it would be “not nearly as expensive as the social and economic costs of crime, illness, violence, despair, and wasted human talent.”

The book advocates changes to both the societal and pedagogical issues facing education today. So how might her solutions affect the average classroom and teacher?

On the societal side, Ravitch starts with pre-natal care, so that we can produce a generation of healthy children with fewer disabilities. She also asserts the need to invest in early childhood education as a means of staving off the achievement gap before it begins. Finally, she calls for adequate wraparound services for disadvantaged children to provide them with needed health care, enrichment programs for both after school and in the summer, and parental education services to get parents more involved in their children’s lives and education.

As a teacher, I can only imagine the benefits that would accrue from such a system. Envision yourself teaching a class brimming with healthy, well fed students who receive all the support they need at home and in the community—students who, when they do fall short academically, are bolstered by additional academic supports. 

Of course, Ravitch also offers her vision of the pedagogical side of this equation. She devotes eight chapters to these solutions, beginning with advocating for reduced class sizes, which study after study has shown improves achievement. As a teacher with thirty three students in every class, I can’t overstate the benefit reduced class sizes would bring. Better behavior, more individualized attention and instruction, and stronger student/teacher interaction can only boost academic success.

Among the other ideas she proposes are: a rich, diverse curriculum, including the arts, foreign language, and physical education; eliminating high stakes testing, as they have done in high performing countries such as Finland, and using tests as a measuring stick rather than a sledge hammer; strengthening the teaching profession by raising standards for teachers and administrators; and making charter schools not-for-profit so that they can work in collaboration with public schools rather than competing with them for scarce resources.

I don’t know about you, but I long for a public school system like this. Imagine a system in which students are healthy and start out on a level playing field. Imagine teaching reasonably sized classes in a school that emphasizes a rich curriculum over endless test prep. Imagine being respected rather than scapegoated, and working in an environment of professionalism and collaboration. Imagine being more concerned with the progress of your students than the points you’ve earned on the Danielson rubric.

Imagine coming home on the second day of school and posting to Facebook how much you love your job and how you look forward to each and every day.

It can happen, but it will take the vision of people like Diane Ravitch and the courage of politicians, union leaders, and other stakeholders to make it a reality. 


Tim Clifford


Comments [6]


Although I was wrong about the salary, I was not "far off" Instead of $80k after 5 years, its $76K. As for attendance in poor performing middle and HS schools most teachers will tell you there is an attendance problem. In fact the City has all types of programs to try to get kids into school. Including text messaging; social media, and home visits. The attendance numbers reported by the schools is just no reliable. Yes. Some charter schools are performing worse that public schools and some are on par. What you left out is that some are doing better. NYC public schools have had 100s of years to try to get it right. Charter school high activity is only 12 to 15 years old. I think we should give them a little more time.

Really ?, I am NOT blaming Teachers, I am defending accountability and much undeniably needed change. My kids went to great Public Schools and had great Teachers. I however did not and have better understanding of crappy schools. Really? this where we differ. Yes. I do believe that if you went in two weeks earlier and started working on those kids with individual Education Plans and parents who do not want them in special ed it can make a difference. It belies logic that having a little more time to meet and access those kids; their parents; and plan for the school year.

Ms. G:

Let me correct your misconception. At 76k in 5 years and benefits worth hundred of thousand dollars (Pension, inexpensive health care, and 401k),NYC Public school teachers are not under paid compared to private schools. The pensions and health care benefits NYC public school teachers get do not exist in a majority of private schools.
Additionally, I was under the impression that over the summer Teachers use to be given post dated checks and are still paid. I did not know your last check is for the "bitter" end of June? Accordingly, under your analysis you are paid the 76k (after 5 years) for only 10 months of work, not 12 months. Even a better salary than I thought.

Lastly, I often hear teachers reply to complaints of summers off by saying I am not off I am working another job or I am taking a classes to better my self. I wish my private sector job would pay me to do what ever I want for two months (including work some where else) and hope its beneficial to the company as a whole.

Lastly, the enthusiasm you shun as merely under 18 camp counseling misses the point. No parent wants unqualified teachers. But, Yes. we want teachers who are spirited and willing to try a different approach, if what they are doing is NOT working.

Sep. 20 2013 03:04 PM
Ms. G from new york city

Anyone here also confused about the supposed "paid summer breaks" that public school teachers allegedly enjoy? Because as far as I can tell, as a (now gladly retired) teacher, my job for which I was compensated began the day after Labor Day in September and ended at the bitter end of June. Please compare that to the typical private/prep school year calendar, where students have what seems to be a 3-month break - I guess so they can get on with their summer break activities at fancy sleep-away camps, vacations at the country house, and the European/Caribbean holiday with the family.

Most public school teachers, unless they have a trust fund and are childless, work in the summers, as well as attend workshops, take courses for credit, go to conferences, and many actually TEACH SUMMER SCHOOL which allows for a whole big two-week vacation wedged between summer Regents exams and Labor Day.

Whenever some ignorant person told me how "lucky" I was to be "paid for summers off" I had to correct their notion of "luck" and "paid to not work". If you saw the amount of college credits I accrued over the years - in ADDITION TO THREE COLLEGE DEGREES - for which NYC teachers are NOT compensated for as teachers are in the suburbs - typically with salary increments for 60-credits and more above the Masters degree - you'd realize that I WAS working - on my own dime - to constantly enhance my skills and knowledge as an educational leader, pedagogue, and arts professional.

PARK SLOPE PARENT: If you prefer a bunch of barely-legal glorified camp counselors who can chant in unison as YOUR child's teacher(s) versus the experienced, certified/licensed, and unionized educators who have come through the trial-by-fire that places most NYC teachers above the norm, I pity you and your children.

Sep. 19 2013 10:03 PM
Norm Scott

Tired parent; Go back next year and see how many of those young enthusiastic teachers are still at the school.

Sep. 19 2013 09:09 AM

TiredParent, I'd really recommend reading Ms. Ravitch's book, as it would correct several misconceptions you seem to have. Regarding class size, I worked in a poor district for nearly 20 years and I can tell you unequivocally that classes were packed to the gills. As more students arrived later in the year, rosters grew even more. If you have any evidence that attendance data is manipulated, you should certainly report it, as that is a crime. Personally, I have never heard of that happening.

Your salary data is far, far off. Teachers don't make $80,000 until they have 13 years in, not 5 as you claim, and that's only for teachers with a post graduate degree and 30 credits beyond that.

Most charter schools either perform worse than public schools or at the same level. Considering that they often cherry-pick students and exclude ELL and Special Ed students, that's hardly an impressive record. Public schools also don't have the luxury to force students out. We take all comers, including the students that charter schools push out their doors.

If you think teachers have too much time off, I urge you to join our ranks. You'll soon understand why half of teachers leave before they reach five years of service.

Again, please read the book. You'll be surprised at the truth about education reform.

Sep. 18 2013 04:35 PM

It is once again parents like the above from Park Slope who blame the teachers. As a teacher myself, I can tell you this. I do work over the summer preparing for the school year with professional development and workshops on my own time. And guess what, coming in to school in August a few weeks early are not going to help the students in my general education classes who have IEP's with 30% promotional criteria who's parents don't want them in a special education class.
And where is the accountability for parents and students? Your comment of "how can you as Teacher do more to get their grades up" burns me like no other. How can I get grades about? How about students take the time to actually DO the assigned work or maybe even, horror of all horrors, study for exams? If I can tell you how many times I have parents calling me the week a marking period ends for extra credit when their kid spent an entire quarter doing nothing I would be out of breath.

Sep. 18 2013 04:31 PM
TiredParent from Park Slope


In poor performing NYC middle schools and high schools the statement that class sizes are too big is disingenuous and attendance is based on manipulated data.

After the first month of a school semester most class sizes in poor performing districts are reduced 25 to 40 percent. In addition, attendance methodology (taking it at scattered periods to maximize head count) is proof of low attendance and done to avoid losing funding.

Compared to the private sector, todays NYC public school teacher out earn most post graduates, have better benefits, pensions, and enjoy so many frequent days off or half days it makes the heads of parents spin trying to keep track of when their kids have a full day of school.

Teachers are making private sector salaries ($80,000 in five years, if you include the great benefits its over a hundred thousand). We spend $12,000 per student in NYC. Teacher accountability should be an expected requirement of teachers. Its not unfair to ask if kids are learning and how can you as Teacher do more to get their grades up.

I understand your fear of Charter Schools. They are shaming the NYC public schools. Not because they have overall great success rates, but because they are trying to do things differently and demanding more from teachers to do it.

In the middle of August, while at a Prospect Height restaurant (Soda), I noticed a gathering of young enthusiastic adults who spontaneously went into a chant. I was pleasantly surprised to learn they were Teachers. I thought they were part of a NYC public school. When, I asked how is it they were back so early, one teacher explained that at their "Charter School" they are required to start orientation and works-shops in mid August so they can review last year and find ways to improve in the upcoming semester and not lose precious teaching days.

I wonder if we can get such planning from our NYC public schools? I wonder, what would be the response from the Teachers Union if Parents demanded that public school teachers end their paid summer breaks early to start preparing for the new years?

Ravitch's theory on prenatal care and good food I am sure will help. But Teachers giving a little more time, being accountable and not asking for money to do it...might also help. Maybe a little.

Sep. 18 2013 01:42 PM

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