In the Classroom: Dispatches from an Inner-City School That Works
by Mark Gerson
Free Press. 238 pp. $23.00
Poor and minority children would clearly benefit if more graduates of the nation’s elite colleges were encouraged to teach in the inner cities for a few years before entering their chosen professions. Yet when Mark Gerson sent out dozens of résumés to public-school districts within a 40-mile radius of his home in New Jersey as he was preparing to graduate from Williams College in 1994, he never even received the courtesy of a reply. And it is not as if New Jersey’s public schools were doing all that well with the teachers they already employed. While ranking near the top in dollars spent per pupil, the schools in districts like Newark and Jersey City were performing as badly as any in the country.
In retrospect, it may not really be so surprising that the public-school bureaucrats to whom Gerson turned were indifferent to his qualifications. American elementary and secondary public education is a $250-billion monopoly driven by work rules and deliberately cumbersome certification procedures imposed by powerful teachers’ unions. These rules create an obstacle course intended to restrict the market and protect the entire system from unwanted competition. From the narrow perspective of the education industry’s special interests, it is far better to keep classroom jobs reserved for education majors from Trenton State than to open them to liberal-arts graduates of academically demanding colleges. As for the consumers of education—i.e., pupils and their parents—their interests do not count for very much in this calculation.
And so, despite a glittering curriculum vitae, Gerson was without a position as September approached. Then he saw a newspaper ad inviting applications to St. Luke’s High, a Catholic parochial school in Jersey City. Within a day he had an interview with the principal, Sister Theresa. To her, what mattered was not how many education credits Gerson had accumulated, or whether he was himself a Catholic, but rather what sort of human being he was and whether he could accept the rigorous academic mission of the school and would be prepared to work long hours teaching a predominantly black and Hispanic student body, half of whom were on welfare and some of whom could not speak English. And, incidentally, would he be willing to do all this for the annual sum of $15,600, about half what the public schools were offering first-year teachers?
Luckily for Gerson, and for readers of this book, the good Sister recognized his talents and offered him five sections of 10th-grade American history, which he gratefully accepted. This charming, humorous, morally serious memoir of his one year at St. Luke’s is the result.1 In part the story of a young middle-class Jew’s encounter with a group of poor kids from Jersey City’s mean streets, In the Classroom is also an insider’s look at one of the most important education stories of our day: how Catholic schools have managed to succeed with the same populations and in the very same districts where public-schools fail miserably, and to do so at one-third to one-half of what public schools cost the taxpayers.
Through intimate portraits of some of his students and fascinating reports of their classroom dialogue, Gerson shows how the moral climate of St. Luke’s worked to combat the various pathologies that affected them in their demoralized and culturally isolated neighborhoods. The first and greatest factor in that moral climate was the expectation of achievement. From the principal on down, the consensus of belief and action at St. Luke’s was that minority children were able to share in and master the intellectual and spiritual heritage of Western civilization. Refusing to indulge the destructive victimology and cultural relativism widely prevalent in the public schools, St. Luke’s transmitted its rigorous message to every student. In their first meeting, Sister Theresa offered Gerson this admonition:
The one thing you have to be careful of is that you can’t feel sorry for these kids. They may have a hard life, but that makes it all the more important for them to do well in school and get in the habit of turning in their work on time. If they say, “I couldn’t do my homework because there was no room in my apartment to work,” you’ve got to reply, “Then lock yourself in a bathroom next time.” These kids can’t afford for us to tolerate any excuses.
Though some observers believe that Catholic schools achieve results only by imposing a strict code of discipline, reinforced through religious indoctrination, Gerson’s classroom anecdotes make it plain that this is no imposition at all. Despite their violent surroundings and their (often justified) mistrust of certain symbols of authority like the police, Gerson’s students had their own finely tuned concepts of honor, character, and responsibility, and they were very far from rejecting the need for a governing moral authority.
Indeed, as Gerson came to realize, many of his students were culturally quite conservative. They hated the welfare system and instinctively understood the demoralization it had bred within their families and communities. Keenly aware of the physical devastation of their crime-infested neighborhoods, they favored harsh punishment for offenders. They also exhibited a natural affinity for religion; as one student wrote in an essay assigned by Gerson, “Religion, family, and hope for the future help me to live with others in society.”
In sum, discipline in this Catholic school was not something arbitrarily enforced from on high but was continuous with the students’ own sense that a school could—indeed, should—set strict limits to their behavior and exact penalties for transgressions. (Their one significant caveat was that the rules must be enforced universally, and with fairness.)
St. Luke’s was hardly able to offer its overworked teachers a living wage; it often lacked books; and its physical plant was crumbling. But by establishing a foundation of order, and by meeting the students’ own standards of justice, it was able to create conditions for teaching and learning. Students in Gerson’s classes worked hard, wrote extensively, and achieved self-esteem by mastering the rudiments of their country’s history. There was nothing miraculous in this. All it involved was common sense and an age-old understanding of human nature.
During the past two decades, dozens of books have touted a grab bag of “prevention programs” that can supposedly inoculate “at-risk” ghetto youths against the dangers of teen pregnancy, delinquency, and calamitous dropout rates. Many, if not all, of these programs have turned out to be duds, their claims of success revealed as utterly spurious. Yet that has not stopped the clamor for ever higher levels of public funding.
In this relatively brief memoir, Mark Gerson points to another and better way. Although Gerson himself has since moved on to law school, his example—and that of St. Luke’s—should be emulated, and replicated, by the score.
1 Parts of this book were published in an early form in COMMENTARY: “In the Classroom,” January 1995.