To the editors:
An article by Elizabeth Blanchard ["Three Teachers Talking"] in the Reader; dated January 22, 1988 was very offensive to the Hispanic community, its students and educators. The article was read by well over 100 persons, all of whom manifested their deeply hurt community pride at a couple of meetings where a decision was made to write the enclosed rebuttal.
Given that the article reflects only one point of view (a very prejudicial one at that) of our schools and community, our local school improvement council is hereby requesting that equal time and space be provided in your newspaper to defend the community's honor and pride. We want to provide you with a more correct picture of our people, our students and our educators.
Surely, as a newspaper in this free society, you understand that true democratic freedom of expression should include the views and opinions of those who are victimized and targeted by the biased opinions of your three "fictitious" teachers.
We sincerely believe that a formal apology from your newspaper is due to our schools and community.
Editors' note: The rebuttal follows. Like the letter above, it has been edited slightly to remove the names of specific schools. The article in question identified the three teachers' school only as "a mostly Hispanic high school, one of the city's poorest, in the Humboldt Park area."
REBUTTAL TO THE ARTICLE: "THREE TEACHERS TALKING" PUBLISHED BY THE READER ON JANUARY 22, 1988
We wish to express our concern and indignation over an article in the January 22, 1988 Reader. Our criticisms will address numerous misunderstandings, lack of accurate statistics, "vinyl coated" racism, blatant ignorance of cultural differences, absence of pertinent socio-economic data, and the superficial and sarcastic tone of many of the remarks made by the three English monolingual teachers interviewed by Elizabeth Blanchard. Furthermore, we wish to voice our dissatisfaction with a unilateral and biased point of view which has excluded the opinions of both Hispanic teachers and students.
In our understanding, true representativeness should include the opinions of all the ethnic and racial groups that are part of our multicultural and multi-ethnic society. If anything, our schools are microcosms of a much wider social context: the city of Chicago; one in which immigrants from all parts of the world work hard to achieve better educational and economic opportunities for themselves and their children, regardless of color, sex or religious creeds.
This is why we deeply resent the fact that Elizabeth Blanchard, with an apparent lack of vision and understanding of the importance of cultural pluralism, agreed to interview exclusively English monolingual teachers to hear their opinions and concerns about the problems of an inner-city school in a predominantly Hispanic community. Such a narrow scope of vision can hardly give the readers of your newspaper an objective view of the problems we confront in these schools. Moreover, we consider such a practice as poor journalism at best and at worst nothing more than negative and improper propaganda lacking accurate facts, scientific criteria or statistics to support most of the statements made by these teachers.
Educational issues in this country, whether dealing with academic achievement, discipline, drugs, birth control, deviant behavior or gangs, warrant a serious approach which is sadly absent in this article. We feel this is a disservice to the community, and that it can lead to serious misunderstanding and prejudice regarding different socio-economic groups or cultures in our society.
In many of the remarks made by these teachers, we have detected a tendency to overreact to many of the problems they have been confronted with throughout their many years of teaching in this inner-city high school: gangs, drugs, alcoholism, teenage pregnancy, low academic achievement, etc. Why did these "educators" have to wait more than ten years to voice their concerns over these issues? Why so many contradictory statements, feigned surprise and hypocritical indignation? Why have they pressed the panic button after so long? Teacher burnout? Why are they making such a big issue of problems that exist not only in many Chicago public schools, but throughout all the inner-city schools in the big cities of our nation?
Our contention is the following: English monolingual teachers, or any teachers for that matter, do no service to the cause of public education in the inner city by focusing on their subjective feelings and experiences, frequently out of context and never providing constructive solutions or alternatives to these problems?
Is it perhaps that these so called dedicated professional educators and the author of the article are taking advantage of the recent open criticisms made of the Chicago Public Schools to vent their frustration and lack of fulfillment in an article which will be read primarily by a white, urban, professional middle class constituency, many of whom are superficially acquainted or totally ignorant of the positive things that take place in our schools? Moreover, is this sensationalistic, negative and demeaning approach the only valid way of eliciting from these middle class readers a true understanding of the complex problems our public schools presently confront? This is not the serious, objective and scientific level of analysis which has characterized many articles published by the Reader in the past.
Let us now turn our attention to address specific remarks and/or comments expressed by these teachers. The first is a contradictory statement made by "Sarah," one which reflects ambivalent feelings about the teaching profession. Teaching seems to be perceived both as a sort of punishment and a source of emotional gratification:
"Maybe I like punishment. I don't know, they say women like to be punished or whatever. . . . And yet, even though I enjoy working with the kids, I still sometimes think of leaving."
There is also a clear dissatisfaction with the salaries they are being paid, the lack of concern of both parents and administrators, and the feeling that their concerns will never be taken seriously by the Chicago Public Schools or by the community:
"And I do feel I have a purpose. But I'd also like to get paid for doing it. And I would like the public to support these schools and I would like the Board to support the teachers. And it's such a joke, it's such a joke."
Following these and other criticisms concerning class size, excessive paperwork, lack of textbooks and other problems we are dealing with, the teachers now concentrate on making judgements about the improper behavior and the moral standards of our students. The focus here is to measure and define "normal behavior" according to middle class standards, not to understand the. psychological, cultural or social factors which elicit this kind of behavior:
"If a middle-class person had to view the kind of behavior we do--what we accept as normal behavior--they'd think we are crazy!"
Important problems such as that of teenage pregnancy are addressed from a culturally biased perspective, revealing misconceptions about moral standards and ignorance of the profound causes--broken marriages, lack of communication, peer pressure--which create this situation. This is dangerously misleading and raises doubts about the moral standards and principles upon which our whole system of values is based. Furthermore, it gives the impression that sexual promiscuity is the rule rather than the exception and that making a girl pregnant is a real status symbol coveted by most Hispanic males:
"They come in pregnant, they've already had one. Or they come in their freshman year, they get pregnant and by their junior or senior year they're pregnant again. Usually by a different boy."
"And it's a real status symbol for the guys. Usually they have two or three."
The number of teenage pregnancies and the fact that the Chicago Board of Education has been dealing effectively with this problem, suggests that the situation is not as alarming as these teachers would have us believe. During the period from July 1, 1986 to June 30, 1987, 131 new pregnancy cases were identified at our local high school. In terms of race and ethnicity 45.8 percent of the 131 pregnant teens were Hispanic without further specification. Of these pregnant students a total of 69.5 percent stayed in school and 28.2 percent dropped out. The 28.2 percent withdrawl rate was substantially lower than the 52 percent city wide withdrawal rate due to pregnancy reported in the 1980 Chicago survey (Chicago Board of Education, June, 1980). It was also substantially lower than the overall withdrawal rate of 50.4 percent at our school as reported by the Chicago Public Schools in 1986. Consequently, it appears that the situation is not as bad as indicated in the Reader article and that teenage pregnancy is not an endemic problem in this school or in the Hispanic culture.
Let us now turn our attention to the negative expectations these teachers seem to have about their students. While at times it gives the impression they are able to "achieve" something with them, there are other instances where the "self-fulfilling prophecy" takes over. According to educational researchers in the 60's and 70's these negative expectations lower the self-esteem and are a contributing factor to low academic achievement. Knowing this, how can these "dedicated teachers" indulge in making sarcastic remarks and continuously underestimate the potential for success of our students? These are not the kind of teachers we need or want in our schools. We are badly in need of professionals who can provide constructive alternatives to help raise the reading, writing and math levels of our students. We do not need teachers who are constantly casting doubts upon students' intelligence and capacity to improve:
"Most of my kids read between the fourth- and fifth-grade level. The tests that they take at the grammar school level--
"They must doctor them or something."
"If I can get a kid at a sixth-grade level math, he's a genius."
Obviously, the teacher who makes these remarks neglects to recognize the knowledge criteria of her remedial program. She seems to lack a clear understanding of the importance of remedial programs for low achievers. Clearly these programs were aimed as a means of improving the academic performance of the students. Elizabeth Blanchard also gives the impression that teaching becomes a "real" profession only when certain levels of achievement are attained when she states:
"That must be frustrating, to have gone to college to learn a profession, and wind up teaching remedial skills."
Of special concern to a community which is largely Hispanic is the issue of language and bilingualism. These teachers' commentaries reveal a total ignorance of recent research on the positive contribution of bilingual programs to learning and mastery of the English language. They criticize the teachers who speak Spanish for being detrimental to the students' acculturation and eventual assimilation into the mainstream society. The opposite is true, indicated in a recent study:
"San Juan Cafferty and Rivera-Martinez also reported that children in the Chicago Public School's bilingual program did much better than their counterparts with no bilingual education component. In general, the students in such bilingual programs exhibited more positive concepts of their own worth and a higher level of aspiration. This finding is supported by Luca's study of Puerto Rican students in Chicago which indicates that a concept of self-worth is more important than knowledge of English in educational attainment.'" [Charles Lambert Kyle Jr.]
Next comes the issue of homosexuality which is blown out of proportion and superficially or totally misunderstood in the context of the students' socio-economic environment. Tolerance among their peers to homosexually inclined students implies a greater degree of acceptance of deviant behavior among a teenage population where cultural shock, intrapersonal or family conflicts, gang violence, etc. are a part of their daily experience. It does not come as a surprise that this openly homosexual behavior has not posed any threat to the typical Hispanic male. The danger lies in implying, as these teachers do, that it is a behavior widely accepted. It is not, has not been and will not be. Moreover, these teachers have based their judgements on a few isolated cases of extravagant behavior and fads which are a normal part of growth among adolescents.
Of greater importance is the gang problem as represented by these teachers. One thing is to acknowledge that a problem exists and another is to distort the impact the gang culture has on the student population. We wonder where these teachers found the facts which authorize them to make the statement that 50 or 60 percent of our students are part of the gang culture. No studies exist to support such specific estimates of the number of students involved in gang activities within the Chicago Public Schools. The available studies deal only with the territories in which gang recruitment or crime related behavior take place.
Touching upon this problem in a very superficial way, as they do in the article, will not give the public an objective picture of a very complex problem (such as that of the gang culture), one which is beyond the means of the schools to solve. With this observation we do not want to deny the fact that gang pressure and fear are important factors in dropping out of school, albeit not the single one. As the previously cited study shows, there are other variables to be considered:
"Are the students using gang pressure as an excuse for dropping out due to other reasons such as being behind in studies due to poor grade achievement and language problems?" [Kyle]
Moreover, the problem of violence among the nation's schools was so much in the increase that the U.S. Congress commissioned the National Institute of Education to investigate the extent in causes of violence in America's schools. (Safe Schools Study Report, 1978).
This is a problem the Chicago Board of Education has been addressing since 1979, when it undertook the "Chicago Safe School Study" at the request of the General Superintendent of Schools. This report was completed in 1981. Among other things, this study determined that "the presence of street gangs and the fear of personal safety because of their presence is felt throughout the entire system." Consequently, this is not a problem which affects mainly one public high school in the area of Humboldt Park, but the whole educational system.
It is evident from reading the article that the teachers interviewed are almost at the point of burning out and perhaps remain in teaching because they have very few other options left. This is hardly the proper attitude to voice in an objective framework about the important issues such as those mentioned above. So, how seriously should we take their criticisms? Very seriously, since outside observers will get a totally confused and distorted picture of what is happening in this school. Some of the distortions mentioned by the three teachers are the way teachers are assigned or transferred to this institution ("the rejects of the system") to the role of the principal and the community in handling discipline ("problem of dropouts") and the security inside and outside the school premises.
One of the most pitiful commentaries made by these teachers was the idea that to teach in an inner-city school in Chicago it is necessary to have first hand experience about street life and low expectations about the students' potential for achievement. What they seem to be lacking is awareness that successful teachers need courage, compassion, enthusiasm, love, and trust in the potential of any human being--regardless of the environmental factors--which have conditioned his development to grow intellectually, emotionally and spiritually.
Another disturbing aspect in this article is the idea that only those students who achieve middle class status live a decent life. All the other options are pathways to unhappiness and even death:
"What do most of the students who graduate go on to do?"
"A lot of them do, unfortunately. Or have kids and live right there in the neighborhood."
"And send their kids to the same high school years later? Does the cycle ever end?"
In the final two pages of the article we detect again the ambivalence of feelings, emotions and perceptions of these English monolingual teachers. They seem to portray or illustrate the contradictions inherent in our society, between the values and expectations of the middle classes and the struggle of lower socio-economic groups to emulate and reach these ideals.
Let us conclude our observations with the sincere hope that we take advantage of this opportunity to work much harder to change the negative stereotypes about our family life, our moral values and our educational goals projected by this article. That while we acknowledge that many of these problems are real, we have faith in the potential of our Hispanic youth to become respectable and productive citizens in a democratic society, capable of assuming key positions in the government, the private industry and the social institutions of the city of Chicago.
It is only through working together that parents, teachers, administrators and students will be able to face the current challenges and those of the future.