Ask the Janitor: An Insider’s Look at Public Education in America, by John B. Muciaccia (Create Space, Inc., 135 pp., $10)

Having worked as a teacher and then a school leader for over 30 years in urban (Hoboken) and suburban (Palisades Park) districts in New Jersey, John Muciaccia is well-positioned to give his insider’s take on what goes on in American public schools—and what goes wrong. His refreshingly candid Ask the Janitor speaks from deep experience, chronicling a host of problems, including the decline of the family and its corrosive impact on public school students and their prospects.

Though he doesn’t name names, Muciaccia offers troubling observations of how local politicians use school systems for patronage placements and hiring, regardless of candidates’ qualifications. This is hardly news to critics of the public school system, of course, but Muciaccia provides fresh confirmation. He also recounts how many of his teaching colleagues began coasting professionally, growing lazy once they had achieved the Holy Grail—lifetime teacher tenure. He illustrates how this corrosive practice has protected low-performing teachers and made their removal all but impossible. His solution: renewable tenure, awarded based on teacher performance and measurable classroom results.

Muciaccia does more than point fingers and identify problems. He also chronicles the inspiring achievements of reformist educators, principals, and other community leaders who have brought positive change to their schools and towns, often in the face of skepticism and outright opposition.

Muciaccia’s book arrives at an auspicious time. The Hoboken district where he taught has spent $200,000 in taxpayer funds to cover legal fees in an effort to block one of New Jersey’s most successful charter schools from expanding to offer seventh- and eighth-grade classes. An appellate court rejected Hoboken’s appeal, but the students are still waiting for those higher-caliber charter classes.

The book’s intriguing title comes from Muciaccia’s contention that the best way to find out what’s going on inside a public school is by talking with the janitor. Teachers and school administrators often respond to straightforward questions with technical language and gobbledygook, describing “processes” and “resources” instead of explaining what’s being achieved at the school. The janitor is likely to tell a visitor the truth, in clear English, the author maintains. That’s quite an admission from a professional educator, but it’s this no-nonsense, pro-parent outlook that characterizes Muciaccia’s career—and his new book.

Photo by William Thomas Cain/Getty Images


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