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The hit comedy ‘Abbott Elementary’ is really a tragedy

Actors on the ABC comedy television show “Abbott Elementary.” (Prashant Gupta/ABC)

Abbott Elementary,” the hit mockumentary on ABC about a high-poverty school in Philadelphia with an incompetent principal, a blackmailed superintendent and dedicated teachers of varying experience, is racking up award nominations that cite its humor, humanity and intelligence.

But there’s nothing funny about the reality that undergirds its humor. It’s a national scandal.

The talented creator and writer of the show, Quinta Brunson, has never taught, but you might be fooled: She hits on some of the most inane and troubling aspects of public education as if she had lived it.

The season’s animating conversation comes in the first episode, when second-grade teacher Janine Teagues can’t afford to replace a rug that a boy peed on because the toilets weren’t working. Janine pleads that she just wants to help students, and veteran teacher Melissa Schemmenti tells her: “We do this because we are supposed to. It’s a calling. You answer.”

Here’s what she didn’t say: It’s a profession, and you come and do your job, and should expect to be treated as a professional.

Are teachers professionals?

In 2022, this country still expects teachers to go to work without adequate pay, supplies or support for their work and their students’ needs — all of which negatively affects student achievement. And teachers are expected to play multiple roles.

In 2019, teachers earned 19.2 percent less than workers with comparable education and experience, according to the nonprofit Economic Policy Institute. The average teacher salary, according to the National Education Association (NEA), the nation’s largest labor union, is estimated to be $66,397 for the 2021-2022 school year — on average $2,179 less per year than a decade earlier, when adjusted for inflation. In many places, teachers get second and sometimes third jobs to pay their bills. In Mississippi during the 2020-21 school year, teachers earned an average of $46,862 — $19 more than the year before, according to the NEA. In New York State, teachers earned an average of $90,222 in 2020-21 — $1,841 more than the year before.

As for public school funding, it is no secret that some districts are so strapped for cash that buildings — like Abbott Elementary — are crumbling, and there aren’t enough teachers, and schools go without librarians, nurses and other support stuff. At one point in the television show, so many teachers have left the chaos at the school that a custodian who voted for Kanye West for president is teaching social studies. During the pandemic, schools were recruiting parents and sometimes high school students to teach.

There is also a question of a community’s priorities. As Janine says to the camera: “I’d say the main problem in the school district is yeah, no money. The city says there isn’t, but they’re doing a multimillion-dollar renovation to the Eagles’ stadium down the street from here. So we just make do.”

Data from the federal government shows big disparities in school funding across school districts, with schools in at least half of U.S. states getting fewer dollars per student than the national average of $13,187 per pupil, adjusted by inflation. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), an arm of the Education Department, reported that in the 2019-2020 school year (the latest for which data is available) Idaho spent $7,950 per students, while New York spent $24,882 — but the amount within states differed substantially. And according to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, New York state remains one of the most inequitable when it comes to school funding.

As for Pennsylvania — Abbott Elementary is fictionally located in Philadelphia — the state spent $16,892 per pupil, adjusted for inflation, according to NCES. Yet according to public education advocates, the state sometimes spends more money on schools in wealthy areas than it does on those in high-poverty areas.

In May, state Attorney General Josh Shapiro (D) agreed with plaintiffs in a major lawsuit filed by six school districts, parents and others who say the state — which contributes significantly less to local districts than many other states — is underfunding public education and severely disadvantaging students of color and those who live in poverty.

Shapiro filed a brief in William Penn School District et al. v. PA Department of Education et al. saying that the state was violating the Pennsylvania constitution by not ensuring that every child was receiving a “comprehensive and effective public education.” Testimony in that lawsuit — in which closing arguments were held in March — showed, among other things, that:

· The Greater Johnstown School District has two reading specialists and no math interventions for 1,200 elementary school students, the majority of whom need individualized or small-group support to catch up and read on grade level.

· William Penn, a majority-Black district of 5,000 students outside Philadelphia, has split one principal between two elementary school for years because of a lack of funding, and kindergarten teacher Nicole Miller testified that she can have as many as 30 students in her class at a time, giving each no more than 20 minutes of individualized instruction no more than twice a week.

· In Panther Valley School District, where more than half of the students are considered economically disadvantaged, Superintendent David McAndrew testified that there are no librarians, and there is only one social worker funded through a grant. In one school, he said, 75 kindergarten students use a single toilet and two urinals.

This is what inadequate funding at a public school looks and feels like — as told by an entire faculty

Though Philadelphia is not a plaintiff in the lawsuit, Pennsylvania State University assistant professor Matt Kelly believes it needs $1.1 billion more than it gets for all students to be college- and career-ready and graduate high school on time.

One amusing “Abbott Elementary” episode has the optimistic and chatty Janine making a snazzy video to beg for basic classroom supplies that her school can’t afford. She pastes pictures of three U.S. presidents in an old social studies book to make it seem more current.

In fact, teachers wind up spending many hundreds of dollars, and sometimes thousands, from their own wallets to buy basic supplies for themselves and their students. (One survey of teachers taken in 2021 found that on average they spend $750 of their own money on supplies.)

Year after year, teachers post wish lists on social media and are treated to discounts by supply companies offering reduced prices — all part of a system that has baked in the idea that educators will absorb the costs themselves because their job is a “calling” and not a profession. They are so moved to help the children in their classes that they will sacrifice personally for it in ways other professionals wouldn’t dream of — or be expected to. And every year, school boards and superintendents and state education departments and state legislatures let it happen.

Two years ago, I wrote about what teachers go through after hearing from more than 1,000 of them. One of them, Becky Cranson, who teachers English at Bronson Jr./Sr. High School in rural Bronson, Mich., said at the time: “I am a scavenger. My friend who works in the Michigan [Department of Natural Resources] office gives me their used binders, and my husband brings me furniture and supplies that the hospital he works at is throwing away.”

‘I am a scavenger’: The desperate things teachers do to get the classroom supplies they need

Yet, schools spend billions of dollars on education technology every year — exactly how any billions is not known — despite no evidence that most of it helps improve achievement. That was the point of an “Abbott Elementary” episode titled “New Tech.” The teachers get a new tablet mandated by the district with software that is supposed to make it easy to teach kids to read and keep real-time data. One teacher objects, saying: “I prefer the tried-and-true methods over whatever the latest doohickey is. I have yet to see the program that can do what I do by, you know, teaching.” It is ridiculously complicated, and no teacher can figure it out, but the exercise is ended when it is discovered that it was meant to be used in prisons.

Justin Reich, an associate professor of digital media at MIT and director of the Teaching Systems Lab, wrote in 2021: “Evangelists for education technology tend to describe their inventions as akin to Swiss army knives, capable of serving numerous functions and solving myriad problems. But, in truth, they more closely resemble a scattered pile of mismatched tools. Many are useful for specific tasks, but the whole collection adds up to less than the sum of its parts.”

If there is one thing that research has shown decade in and decade out about education, it is this: Poverty matters. We know that poverty and characteristics of children’s families are associated with children’s educational experiences and their academic achievement. Living in a household without a parent who has completed high school, living in a single-parent household and living in poverty are associated with poor educational outcomes — including receiving low achievement scores, having to repeat a grade and dropping out of high school, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, an agency of the Education Department. It reports that in 2020 (the latest year for which data is available), some 16 percent of children lived in poverty.

During the pandemic, Congress expanded the Child Tax Credit for part of 2021, and, according to researchers at Columbia University, initial payments led to a 25 percent drop in food insufficiency among low-income households with children, and child poverty rates dropped. But the child tax credit expansion ended last December, and there is no push in the nation’s capital to restore it. None.

So what do we do? We watch “Abbott Elementary” and laugh.

The show has been so well-received that it won seven Emmy nominations Tuesday. It has also received five nominations at the Television Critics Association’s 2022 TCA Awards, the year’s most-nominated show, and has been named a finalist for prizes given by the nonprofit Humanitas group that recognizes “television and film writers whose work explores the human condition in a nuanced way.” It has nine nominations for the Black Reel Television Awards and three for the Dorian Awards.

“Abbott Elementary” is funny, yes. But the conditions it highlights are scandalous.

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