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An American Affidavit

Thursday, June 23, 2016

211. Letter To The Editor: The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto from archive.org

Letter To The Editor 

March 22, 1995 
Letters to the Editor 
The Education News 

When I began teaching in 1961, the student population of School District 3 on the 
prosperous Upper West Side of Manhattan was over 20,000, and the cry was heard 
everywhere from the four district administrative employees (!) that schools were 

But I was fresh from western Pennsylvania and saw something different, a small but 
significant fraction of the school's enrollment was made up of phantom kids in several 
categories: kids on the school register who had never shown up but were carried as if they 
had; kids who were absent but who for revenue purposes were entered as present; kids 
who were assigned to out-of-school programs of various sorts, some term-long, but who 
continued as phantoms to swell the apparent school rolls. Then there were the absentees, 
about 10 percent a day, who were actually marked absent, and the curious fact that after 
lunch attendance dipped precipitously sending that fraction soaring, although there 
seemed to be a gentlemen's agreement not to document the fact. 

So it was that when the press announced horrendous class sizes of 35 and 50, in my 
school, at least, the real number was about 28 — still too many, of course, but manageable. 
Although everyone agreed there was absolutely no space available anywhere, by greasing 
the custodian's palm I was able to obtain a master key and a priceless document known 
as the "empty-room schedule." Would you believe there was never a time when multiple 
rooms in that building weren't empty? By training my kids in low-profile guerrilla tactics 
I was able to spread about half my class into different cubbyholes around the building 
where they worked happily and productively, in teams or alone. 

Beginning in the 1980s this tactic became impossible because all the empty spaces did fill 
up — even though the number of students District 3 was managing fell sharply from 
20,000 to 10,000, and with even more lax procedures to account for them than when I 
was originally hired. This latter development caused phantom children to multiply like 
rabbits. A simple act of long division will explain in outline what had happened: by 
dividing the number of students enrolled in my building by the number of teachers on the 
class register, I was able to discover that average class sizes should have been 17 kids. 

And yet actual class sizes were about 28. The mystery of the now unavailable empty 
space vanishes in the ballooning numbers of "coordinators," "special supervisors," 
"community programs officers," and various other titular masks behind which deadwood 
was piling up. Each of these people required an "office" whether that be the former 
Nurse's Room, the dressing room behind the stage, or a conveniently large storage closet. 
It had happened to the Army and to IBM, why should schools be exempt? 

John Taylor Gatto 
New York, New York 

A Quality Education 

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