Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Thursday, December 8, 2016

A Plea for the Public School, Part 3

Adams Elementary School
Enid, Okla.
the school my mom and my brothers & I attended

In previous posts I've talked about the dreadful state of many public schools--about the troubles that establishing schools-for-profit can cause. Some readers have reminded me that there are some fine charter schools (no debate about that), but in Ohio--where I've lived since 1956--we have a troubled charter sector. And, of course, charters use funds from the districts in which they function, so ... that means fewer dollars available for the public school kids. This becomes especially painful in districts where the charter does not perform as well as the local school--very common in the Buckeye State.

Anyway--one more comment about human-services that are for-profit. When my child is sick--or when my child is in a classroom--I don't want people there looking at him/her and seeing dollar signs. I want them thinking, How can I best help this person?

And while I'm at it--a word or two about private schools. I've taught in a private high school (Western Reserve Academy--about ten years) and private colleges (Lake Forest College, Hiram College--about three years), and all were wonderful experiences for me--and, I hope, for the students.* I believe that private schools can and should co-exist with the public ones (the American Way!), but I also believe that we need to make profound changes in public education if we are to restore it--no, to rescue it.

Many/Most (?) public schools are grievously underfunded. Here in Ohio (and in other states) we made the mistake--long, long ago--of putting the burden of funding on local communities, and to allow those communities to vote on that funding--which, in a way, is letting them vote on whether or not they want a chance to have a good public system.

The problems are obvious: Wealthier communities will, in most cases, have better facilities, supplies, public support; many good teachers will choose to work there where salaries and benefits are better--as are working conditions (including class sizes and number of classes and preparations). One of the most stunning differences I experienced in my prep-school teaching: I had three classes with about a dozen to fifteen students in each. My first year in public school (1966-67) I had five classes with forty students in each. Do the math. Even by the end of my public school career (Jan. 1997) I had well over a hundred students a day--sometimes as many as 150. Hmmm, how long does it take to grade 150 essays? Or 40?

So ... here's a fairly radical solution that we will probably never enact. I believe we should flood the public schools with money--and not entirely (or even prominently) by the local school district--for many simply cannot afford what's needed. The state and federal government need to begin to behave as if the education of children and young people is truly, not just rhetorically, important. In a democracy, of course, an educated citizenry is fundamental. We simply cannot allow poor schools to exist, wherever they are. We are cheating children, of course (a deadly sin, in my view), but we are also damaging our democracy. Ignorance and ill-education are severe threats.

(Mark Twain, by the way, over and over again, wrote about how ignorance was a severe threat to America; it still is.)

I guess we need to have the imagination required to view the worst of our schools and ask: Would I want my child to go there? And if we don't (and surely we don't!), then as a nation we need to do our best to make sure that there is as much equal opportunity around the country as is possible.**

So flood the schools with money ... flood, I say! For construction and renovation of buildings (and maintaining them), for purchase of supplies and equipment (including, of course, technology), for attracting teachers by offering substantial salaries and working conditions (including reduced class sizes and reduced numbers of classes for each teacher). There are idealistic, compassionate, and talented teachers everywhere; we need more of them. We need hordes of them. But we need to realize, as well, that teaching is a profession, and we need to begin treating it as such. That means salaries, working conditions, trust, respect. And we must reform teacher training (but that's another topic for another post).

Our politicians bellow about how important education is, but no one seems to want to prove it by providing the major investments required.

We also need to abandon this Standardized-Test Mania that has swept the land for nearly twenty years now. Last spring I did some presentations at a public middle school in semi-rural Michigan, and during one break I sat in the school library, reading. I saw classes were cycled in there not to find books or read or talk about books but to do practice standardized tests! Over and over and over again.

One of the principal reasons I retired from public schools when I was first eligible (I was only 52) was that I could see, already, in 1997, that tests and scores were beginning to dominate the curriculum. And dominate kids' notions of what school is for. One day I went off on a riff about something about Shakespeare, and one of my eighth graders put up his hand. Is this going to be on the proficiency test? I assured him that it was not. Then why are we talking about it? Reasonable question in an unreasonable world. He was not being rude, by the way--just fearful.

Our grandsons--7 and 11--have already taken more standardized tests than Joyce and I did in our entire school careers--kindergarten through Ph.D.!

Here's one thing I know: Learning stuff is fun. With a great teacher guiding things, it's even more fun. I still spend most of my days reading and learning about things I've never known. It's among the greatest pleasures of my life. I will do it until I can't.

But I fear that too many kids in public schools today are equating learning with testing. And school with drudgery. Their days are filled with routine and narrow, narrow ideas of what learning is.

So, I'm getting tired of writing this right now, so that means you must be tired of reading it! In the next day or so I'll do a post about what curricular reforms would be most beneficial--though some of those ideas are just a few paragraphs above this one ...

*Our son attended WRA, as well (grades 9-12)--but was able to only because his mom was teaching there: He could live at home and receive free tuition--a faculty benefit of considerable value--a cost we could not otherwise have handled.

**There are of course other prominent factors at play: family, community, cultural/social influences on the young. But let's give everyone a chance. Far too many today have virtually no chance ...

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