Trying to make a difference

A new teacher tries to motivate Los Angeles high school students in the first part of an LA Times series. (Go to BugMeNot for sign-in info.)

One slept. Others stared, bored.

He had planned today’s class carefully: His students would relate to him. They would ask his advice about college. Then he would divide them into teams and lead them in a tic-tac-toe spelling game.

They would compete fiercely. Excitedly.

A girl in the front row studied herself in the mirror of her compact. She ignored him.

This was Ricardo Acuña’s third week as a teacher. Day after day, it was growing more difficult. He gave the girl a tense look. Then he wrote her name in red on the board: detention.

“Mister! I wasn’t putting on makeup.” She slammed her books on her desk. Then she crossed her arms and slumped in her seat.

“If you have an education,” Ricardo told them all, “you can make a difference in your lives and your families’ lives.”

The hour passed without any sign that he was making much difference himself.

Acuna, the son of a migrant laborer, got a boarding school scholarship and went on to earn Stanford and Columbia degrees. After working as communications director for the United Farmworkers, he’s now a teaching intern. The mentorship program that was supposed to help career-switchers learn to teach has lost its funding, but he can turn to his wife, an experienced teacher, for help.

About Joanne


  1. I wonder if the “superteacher” “stand and deliver” mythology might not in the long run be discouraging to teachers. And without the authority to confiscate that mirror, what can he do but be a part of the girl’s narcissistic tableau?

    What a miserable situation. And I’ll bet a former nfp communications director isn’t going to stay there under those circumstances.

  2. superdestroyer says:

    Look at the students in the classroom and try to fit them into the logic that vouchers will solver everyting. Will the students get better teachers at a small, newly formed private school? Will the students suddenly develop a pro-learning attitude? Will parents who do not want to be called by a teacher actually fill out an application and take their children to admission tests?

  3. SD: A better teacher might get some of these kids interested in their courses again. This happened to me in 7th grade. But five years later when my little sister started at the same school, neither one of the great teachers that turned me around were still there. One was headmaster at a quite expensive private school, and the other had quit teaching altogether. (And probably took a pay cut in changing jobs!) OTOH, the worst teacher in the school was still there after 20-some years of failing to teach (my parents checked with people their age who’d gone to this school, and he hadn’t changed a bit). Under union rules no doubt he stayed in that same job until he retired.

    Charters and voucher-funded private schools wouldn’t be able to do anything about the pay differential that helped draw one great teacher to a much more expensive private school, but they could fire the bad teachers and change the conditions that repel good teachers. And those that fail to attract good teachers or to identify and get rid of the deadwood will go out of business once word gets around that Johnny isn’t learning to read there – while bad public schools get a fresh crop of victims every year.

    That said, there are kids that no one is going to be able to educate. Some pick up bad attitudes from their parents or their neighborhoods. Some seem to be just born that way – I’m thinking of the mayor’s son where I grew up, everyone was relieved when he turned 16 and killed himself in a drunken car crash… But you could let the ones who ARE interested in learning get into a school where these losers are not allowed to prevent the rest of the class from learning.

  4. superdestroyer says:


    Thanks you for being honest that vouchers are not really about improving education but in maximizing benefits for some students. If you want that for the education policy of the US (and I agree with you on it), there are easier things to do than vouchers. The first would be to give entrance exams to all children and then placing children in schools based upon their scores. thus the best performing kids end up surrounded with the other high performing kids.

    Another, and even easier reform, would be to make high school voluntary. That way, the teachers, administrators, etc, have no vested interest in keeping non-performing, trouble makers in school. It would be the easiest way to make school better for the most students. That way, Mr. Acuna would have a class of student who at least chose to be there and were interested in learning. The other benefit is that it would lower the cost of education and focus education spending of academic education instead of social engineering or social work.

  5. ariztophanes says:

    I think the model that is needed is focused on kids:

    If a kid is progressing, behaving, and being successful, don’t change anything.

    If they’re not, then you MUST find a way to help that child progress, behave and be successful. There are probably a variety of approaches for the variety of kids, but it MUST be done.

    Charter schools are a piece of the puzzle: in some communities they serve as an alternative, and in others they serve the “traditional” kids that lose out when their public school becomes a de facto alternative school.

    It seems to me that the failing of the public schools has been to not recognize failure and to NOT IMPLEMENT programs that work. They have continued to put kids who don’t know success in classrooms where teachers are teaching to the declining majority of traditional kids, or where teachers aren’t given the tools necessary to deal with the kids they are given. This because districts don’t want to lose the money they get from each kid — thinking that their job is to serve the workers of the district, rather than the students and parents.

    In my opinion, a lot of what they’re given is a egotistical, constructivist-created, “meet my needs” megalomaniac who cannot understand that their needs don’t trump the needs of their classmates, and can’t shut their traps long enough to learn anything — and who have been doing it for so long that they lack the basic skills to pick it up, anyway. But I digress….

    I suspect that there are programs that work for these kids. Parents must demand them, administration must FIND and support them, and teachers must be prepared to take on the challenges of teaching in these programs. And if the kids aren’t reading better, calculating better, and writing better, then you had better find something that works or get out of the business. It may be Dr. Phil tough-love, or computer-based, or Job Corps-style — if it works, use it.

    My guess is, though, that very few districts in the US are able to implement anything that is too much different from what they are already doing.


  1. buy fosamax says:

    buy fosamax

    buy fosamax

  2. rape sex says:

    rape sex

    rape sex