Lifting the Curtain: Q & A with D.A. Russell

Today, I’d like to introduce you to D.A. Russell, author of Lifting the Curtain: The disgrace we call urban high school education, in addition, you will have the opportunity to win your own copy of Lifting the Curtain by entering the giveaway! (More about that later in the blog.)

Russell's book, Lifting the Curtain is a "no holds barred" kind of read.  Kirkus Reviews calls the book, “An impassioned look at the shortcomings of public education, from the perspective of an inner-city high school teacher.”  In it, Russell exposes the systemic failures in today’s educational system and offers a solution geared to put the focus back onto the best interests of the children. Anyone who cares about a child should educate themselves about what is really happening in our schools. 

As a fellow educator, I was eager to ask Don some questions about the state of our educational system and teaching in general.  

Q: While writing Lifting the Curtain, you surveyed both students and teachers regarding the state of education. What surprised you most about the students’ responses? 

A: I was really taken aback by how much our children want to have better and more challenging teaching. In the student survey, the most common comment in the “what is best… or what is worst… or what needs change” section of the questionnaire was from students angry about not learning enough! Some of the responses were amazing to hear: 

  • “My teachers think I’m incapable of doing work because I’m in standard. I want a challenge.” 
  • “The work they give us is stupid is (sic) like they don’t want to challenge us to do something bigger.”
  • “The lack of work that is given. Personally, I rather (sic) be challenged than given a free pass.” 
When I followed up with students on this issue, I tried to see what made the difference for them. In almost every case it was a teacher who set expectations far above what the child had ever experienced before, and then that teacher was passionate about working to help the child earn good results. One of the most intriguing (and absolutely spot-on) studies of what makes a great teacher found only two common factors -- a passion to teach, and a knack for engaging children. 

The only dumb ones are the ones we teach to be dumb. A free ride through high school is not an act of love or kindness! 

 Q: What impact, if any, have all these policies had on our children’s arts and cultural studies? 

A: You’ve hit upon yet another unintended consequence that shortchanges our children. In almost every school I researched, the children had one or two classes each term dedicated to helping pass standardized testing – often one for both English and for Math. Many schools are starting to look at adding more such “test preparation” classes for bio, chemistry, and history as those topics become part of standardized testing. 

So do the math – who loses when 2-3 of a day’s classes are tied up with remedial training? A typical school has just 5-6 classes per day. If two (and soon to be more than two) are for additional Math and English training to help with passing standardized tests, where is there room for electives anymore? Where is there a space for creative writing? For law? For small business issues? For psychology? For that matter, where is there a slot for band, art, home economics, study hall, or carpentry? 

Once again, as with inclusion classes, the issue is simply math – too many topics trying to compete for too few spaces. The bureaucrats, year after year, do not understand something as obvious as 7-8 classes cannot fit into a 5-6 class day – and our children are the losers. 

Q: Why do so many teachers believe we must eliminate inclusion classes? 

A: This is a critically important, yet dangerous question! Anyone who criticizes inclusion classes is likely to immediately be labeled as uncaring, unfair, and even racist. Yet, the truth is that those of us who are most caring about children who struggle in class are the ones who most recognize how much inclusion classes have hurt our children. I feel so strongly about such children that for the past ten years I always asked for the weakest standard classes. Those classes have given me more joy in watching “losers” earn success than anything else in my life. 

So why am I so strongly against inclusion classes? It is an issue of math, not philosophy. It has nothing to do with uncaring, racism, or fairness. It is simply the fact that inclusion classes force the teacher to decide what part of 115 minutes, on average, of mandated requirements will not be fit into a 60 minute class. An inclusion class has so many Department of Education and administrative mandates that the teacher must either skip parts of the teaching, skip parts of the accommodations, or skip part of the administration of the class. There is not a single inclusion teacher in the United States who has ever been able to provide all the items mandated for an inclusion classes. Not one. 

Since accommodations for the inclusion students in the class are so essential, inclusion teachers must cut out parts of the required curriculum in every class in order to spend one-on-one time with inclusion student accommodations. If a class has just 10 inclusion students (my standard classes averaged 15-plus per class) and the teacher spends just three minutes with each inclusion student on accommodations (or stops to help a co-teacher with accommodations) then 30 minutes of mandated curriculum topics must be skipped. Everyone, both non-inclusion and inclusion students, suffers because important topics are discarded. 

Inclusion classes sound good, and appear “fair and caring.” But they seriously hurt the very students we are trying to help by forcing the teacher to dumb down the education in every class. Don’t shoot the messenger – it is what it is. 

Q: Some people say America’s educational system doesn’t prepare students to compete in global business; the children are simply trained to be consumers and workers. What are your thoughts on this? 

A: I have heard that view, or ones much like it, many times. It is a very frustrating one for all the good teachers to hear. Sadly it is both right, and totally wrong, with most people having no chance to see the subtle difference because Department of Education career bureaucrats and inept school administrators are so good at hiding what is wrong with our schools. 

The first part is spot on – our educational system does not even get close to preparing children to compete for the most rewarding business jobs. The testing service ACT in September of 2013 (The Condition of Career and College Readiness) reported that less than half of 2013 high school graduates were prepared for college. Just consider this scary comment in the ACT report: “Just over 1 in 4 (26%) ACT-tested high school graduates met all four ACT College Readiness Benchmarks in 2013.” 

Our high school administrators and Department of Education career bureaucrats should be ashamed of that report – and many of them fired! We have forced teachers to dumb down education so much that our children in urban high schools have little chance of ever getting on a career path to the best, most rewarding, and challenging jobs. The number of high school graduates that either must go to community colleges to repeat their high school courses in order to qualify for a four-year college, or spend their first two years of a four year school repeating those courses, is staggering. And it is shameful. 

The part of this view that so frustrates teachers is the second part – the view, by those who cannot see all that is hidden behind the curtain of the school entryway, that all teachers want to do in the classroom is to get the children to pass and to qualify for minimum wage positions. It is seen as the intent of the teachers to do the minimum. Yet almost every teacher I have ever met feels just the opposite – and beg for the chance to challenge our children. But the system forces teachers to skip content and dumb down the curricula. We are told to concentrate on the minimal materials covered in standardized testing, rather than challenging our students, because of administration pressure to avoid school sanctions for low test scores is constant. Our inclusion classes mandate 20-30 minutes per class of accommodation support for students to be taken out of the hour that is needed for teaching content – so the teacher must eliminate chunks of the material every class. Most of today’s Special Education (SPED) students have the deadly “…can retake any failed test” accommodation that saps student motivation and effort. We have dozens of well-intentioned mandates that take children out of the classroom for hours each month for bullying assemblies, allergy training, LGBT sessions, evacuation and fire drills, career opportunity meetings, counseling sessions, and a host of others – all good things when considered alone, but when totaled up they significantly reduce even further the time spent actually teaching a subject. 

Teachers don’t train our children to be just consumers and entry-level workers -- the systemic failure of our educational system prevents teachers from doing so much more, and so much we want to do, that would prepare these children for the best possible careers. 

To read more about what’s happening in today’s schools please visit the website at

Are you ready to see what else is behind the curtain? Enter to win a copy of Lifting the Curtain, The disgrace we call urban high school education. Go to

About the Author: 

D.A. Russell has spent the last ten years as a math teacher in one of the urban high schools used as an example in Lifting the Curtain. He is an honors graduate of Dartmouth College, and received his master’s degree from Simon School, where he was valedictorian of his class. Russell is a decorated Vietnam veteran. He has two children that he treasures, and four grandchildren. His son is a police officer who served in the US Army in Afghanistan, earning a Bronze Star for valor. His daughter is a lawyer and his most passionate fan and honorary literary agent. 

Russell has taught and coached children for decades. Few things are more important in his view than to cherish the children who are our real treasures in this world. 

Connect with the author at: 


Robyn Chausse said…
CBS "Sunday Morning" just aired a segment about the controversy surrounding CORE; education seems to be the big topic right now!
Yes, Robyn, in school systems across the country this IS a big topic. Thanks for your post. I hope this reaches lots of educators as well as parents and concerned citizens.

Blessings, Linda

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