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The Shocking Truth from the Front Lines of American Public Education

by John Owens

Pub Date: Aug. 6th, 2013
ISBN: 978-1-4022-8100-6
Publisher: Sourcebooks

A publishing professional’s account of his detour teaching in a Bronx public high school and of the scapegoating he experienced at the hands of its administrator.

Owens, whose 2011 Salon article “Confessions of a Bad Teacher” inspired this book, taught for less than one year at a school he renames Latinate Institute. Spearheaded by “Mrs. P,” an ambitious principal who emphasized data and visionary statements (and who was later discovered to be inflating graduation numbers), the school suffered from an emphasis on “pageantry.” Often blaming staff for situations beyond their control—including students with behavioral problems and disabilities—Mrs. P exemplified (for the author) problems with contemporary school reform, which often insist on teachers bearing responsibility for “classroom management” even when they are plagued with obvious problems, from minimal parental involvement to a lack of administrative support and special education resources. Owens’ optimism toward teaching diminished once he realized he was "at the bottom of an organizational chart that had more arrows than Custer’s last stand." With a mix of genuine frustration and occasional weary humor, the author reveals his views on the school’s goal-oriented expectations, which often masked the fact that many students lacked basic skills, and on the unfairness of the teacher-evaluation system, among related topics. Though Mrs. P emerges as a tyrannical personage, most of Owens' anecdotes, such as those involving fellow teachers, underscore his point: In the wake of No Child Left Behind, education is failing, and the American public cannot ignore some of the fundamental reasons, including wealth disparity.

Less a revelatory exploration of policy gone wrong than a heartfelt call to action, Owens’ account of a lower-income school does not tread surprising ground for readers familiar with the topic. Still, he offers a worthy perspective on the need to change the ways in which teachers are viewed and concludes with useful suggestions to get started.