Sol Stern, a former Ramparts writer, sent his children to the best public schools in New York City, seeking an egalitarian education. Stern ended up writing Breaking Free: Public School Lessons and the Imperative of School Choice, which calls for breaking the public school monopoly.
Stern got his children into P.S. 87, highly regarded for its “child-centered” approach, writes William Tucker in his New York Sun review of Stern’s book.
At one point Mr. Stern encountered what he thought was a homeless derelict wandering the schoolyard. The man turned out to be a tenured teacher permanently shunted to playground duty. When the disheveled educator occassionally appeared in the classroom, the children complained of his body odor and made up songs about him. Yet union rules made it impossible to get rid of him.
What troubled Mr. Stern even more was the “progressive” curriculum that offered the children no coherent body of knowledge but professed to make them “lifelong learners” who had “learned how to learn.” Well, they were taught a few things. African-American heroes were drilled into their heads along with feminism, gay rights, environmentalism, world peace, and the whole liberal panoply. When Mr. Stern asked his son, a third grader, what he knew about George Washington, the boy responded innocently, “Do you mean George Washington Carver?”
Middle school was no better. The French teacher fell asleep in class and eventually left on medical leave. He was followed by a string of replacements, all of whom couldn’t speak French or, alternately, English. When, after two years, the school finally landed a delightful young woman who made up a whole year’s work in three months, she was quickly bumped by a returning teacher with greater seniority — the original narcoleptic.
So it continued for eight years through Stuyvesant High School, supposedly the most elite school in the country. “Advanced” math classes were taught by teachers who barely knew the material. Overmatched teachers expelled kids from class for pointing out their mistakes. Principals threw up their hands and said they had no control over what happened in the classroom. Everywhere Mr. Stern found “an institution running on bureaucratic rules and the rhythms of the union contract.”
Stern, the child of immigrant parents, was educated himself in New York City’s public schools. These days, he writes, children from disadvantaged families can find opportunity in Catholic schools, but rarely in the bureaucracy-choked public system.