StudentsFirst.org just sent me an email with the following text:
“Students, parents and community leaders are gathering in front of City Hall on Wednesday and I hope you will join us!
Our message — Pennsylvania students need more quality school options. There are too many children trapped in failing schools across our state, including in Philadelphia. We must make sure that our kids have quality alternatives so that every child has the opportunity to get a quality education.”
This sounds like another “Charter schools and vouchers are the answer!” sort of thing, and I’m really fed up. Why does everyone assume our schools are failing wholesale? Why aren’t we showing all the good things that happen every day? Why are we trying to equate “public school” with “failure”?
I am really proud of the public schools my kids attend. I happily sit on several committees for the school district. I’ve gotten to know teachers and administrators, and even when we’ve had issues or disagreements, I know everyone is doing what they think is in the best interest of my child. In fact, in recent conversations in the community at large, when I’ve told people where my kids go to school, they say “Those are the nicest, most well-behaved kids around. It’s amazing.” And when I’ve told the administrators about these comments, they have said “You know, even when kids make bad choices, and they do, we try to make decisions that help the child learn and grow- so even the kids who are in trouble know we care about what happens to them.”
Schools are about more than test scores. Schools are about nurturing children, even when they hit ages during which hormones and development make them a challenge even for the people that love them most of all. It means remembering that each of the kids in the classroom is a person who has their own talents and their own struggles. It means trying to create an atmosphere where everyone can learn- not just about the subject matter, but about each other, and how to work with others, even the people you don’t like very much.
I have two kids in my house, not the 25 to 30 in the classroom. Even with my two, we have everything from room mate issues (“Could you PLEASE pick up after yourself?”) to Getting along with others (Was it necessary to call your brother that name? Did that help the situation at all?) to getting your work done (How many times do I need to ask you to push the dishes in the dishwasher?). Now imagine, trying to get 25 to 30 kids in a classroom, anywhere from one class period to a whole day in elementary school, to function like a family, at least for that class period. And you don’t have the power to cut their allowance, or do much in the way of punishment other than moral persuasion or a threat of a lower grade.
Teachers don’t have an easy job. They don’t get paid very well, considering we’re putting our children in their hands. We ask teachers and schools to not only protect our kids, but to nurture, to teach them information and skills, and also socialize them to work well with others and become responsible citizens. We ask them to act as parents, yet we constrain their ability from time to time to give a kid a hug who may need it. We ask them to perform miracles, but then we take away the money the schools need to make the miracles a little easier to perform.
I’ve seen teachers keep snacks in their drawers, purchased with their own money, to make sure that hungry kid who forgot or couldn’t pay for lunch get something to eat. I’ve seen teachers keep a few extra sweaters or hoodies in their class for those kids who don’t have one and get cold. I’ve seen teachers organize community drives on the down low when they have learned of a student who doesn’t have a bed, or won’t have a Christmas because of their family circumstances. These are folks who we trust with our children every day, but they are publicly treated with less and less trust and less respect. It’s not fair, and it’s not right.
Granted, all schools and all teachers aren’t alike. I had what I’ll refer to as a “difference of opinion” with one of my kid’s teachers this year that made all the stereotypes we have in our head about public education being a factory experience for the kids and teachers alike come to mind. But even in this instance, I came away from the experience knowing that my child still learned a lot from the experience, even if the lessons weren’t all academic. Some of them were about working with difficult people and agreeing to disagree. But in the end, I also know my son learned a lot this year and grew in this teacher’s class, and benefited from being there, even if they will never be best of friends.
It’s so easy to criticize. It’s so easy to assume that we can remake education from the outside, but we forget how tough it is on the ground floor. The folks seeking to make a profit in education don’t understand that education is really a long term research and development project for new citizens, not another potential cost savings and profit center. Let’s take the example of paving a highway. It’s an infrastructure cost. It’s a cost to the government, but one we all benefit from by getting to work faster, making more money and paying more taxes as a result. But the highway itself is not a profit center, but enables the government to benefit indirectly as we all benefit just a little bit more from the process. Education, similarly, is an infrastructure cost for developing new citizens. The better the job we do, the more successful those kids will be, and we’ll all benefit in the end. Because kids take a long time to be launched and the results of the infrastructure spending are years away, how do we know what we’re doing now will be the “right” thing years from now? I don’t think anyone knows for sure.
What makes all of us so crazy about public education now is that it seems to be drifting farther away from reflecting the world around us. We worry kids aren’t being prepared for an uncertain future. While I think the future has been, and always will be, an unknown by its very nature, I do think making sure kids have core skills that they’ll need, including not only the classic 3 R’s but the 21st century skills known as the 4 C’s including collaboration, creativity, critical thinking and problem solving , and communication, is necessary. I do think we should have teachers who are able to make sure kids know why they are learning and why it’s important, no matter what grade it’s in, and kids who are willing to ask questions, challenge the status quo, and have input into their own education. We need to have kids able to think beyond a multiple choice test, and do more with what they’re learning, right now, to make the learning more tangible and real.
Public schools are already doing this every day, through things like project based learning projects, STEM education, and more. We’re asking our teachers to do more and do better, and trust me, no one really wants to be in a job that’s the exact same thing, day after day. While teachers may be scared and resistant and want more data that the changes they are being asked to make will not be just another educational fad- And we owe that to them- we all have to go through this disruption together and learn together- kids and adults alike. We won’t have the data for a long time, but we know that the demands of a global marketplace are much different, and our kids need to be well prepared to be able to attack problems with whatever they have at hand, and be able to take apart the problem so they know where to begin their work.
Like real life, not every project is going to be successful. There’s often more than one right answer. There’s multiple ways to approach any problem. Maybe charter schools and private schools are one way to do that. But public education aggregates all of our kids, regardless of ability or economic level, and that’s a much more powerful and meaningful experience that the self- selected towers where we decide which kids we’ll allow our kids to play with.
Are we always going to be looking to gate jump or line jump for a new perceived opportunity rather than teaching a lesson about investment in community- after all, that’s the world the kids will have to go live in. Even when we used to be able to move out of town and start afresh, now our kids will take their town and past with them, everywhere they go, through Facebook, LinkedIn and more. How will they get a fresh start and blank slate? Now more than ever, we have to learn to work, communicate and collaborate with anyone, anytime, anywhere- and the lessons of fixing what’s broken rather than throwing it away will be more important than ever before.
Public education isn’t a broken toaster. Replacement with a new one, as shiny as it seems, promising faster, better, cheaper, may break much sooner than the old one, which has more experience and knows more about the ups and downs over time. Maybe working to help nurture and fix what we have rather than seek just to replace it with something else is the more logical, frugal, and valuable way to go. Sure, teaching old dogs new tricks is difficult, but never impossible. Plus, it’s the best way to ensure you reap all the rewards from your past investment in that system, that old dog, rather than finding out five years down the line it wasn’t the dog that was untrainable, it was your poor training that led to the problem in the first place.
Spending time identifying what we want and expect out of education, and make sure those expectations are reasonable, and funded in such a way that they are achievable is the right way to go. Throwing it out and buying a new one is almost always a bad idea except in extreme conditions.
Don’t let the hype of the new thing drown out the value of what’s already in place.