"High Achievement always takes place in the framework of high expectation." - Charles Kettering

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Education or Social Services: What is the "prime directive" for Public Schools?

WARNING: Can of worms to be opened here. If you don't like controversy, step away from the blog, please step away from the blog!

This post was hard for me to rein in. I'm sure it shows. I even tried printing it out to slash and burn it twice and only succeeded in saving another half of it for a later date. What remains for today is a mixed bag of my definition of Education, my take on how and why public schools became responsible for providing social services, how we complacent parents enabled it and how our entitlement attitude propagated it while societal changes have complicated the whole process of public education.

My post summarizing the finance committee highlights got me thinking about where on the list of priorities "education" now lies for the average public school district. Before I became active with the school board in 2006, I always believed education was the first and foremost goal of any school, public or private. This deceptively simple word means many things to many people. When I refer to the word "education," I envision it in capital letters and it conjures feelings of awe and reverence : EDUCATION (dramatic organ music, please). I'm pretty sure I got that from my father, who cherished the educational ideal. He never pursued college because WWII inconveniently broke out when he was in high school. But he fiercely embraced the ideals and opportunities represented by EDUCATION with a capital E. He married my mother, a teacher who spoke five languages and he encouraged her to earn her Master's Degree while surrounded by five heathen children ages 1-12 who had no appreciation whatsoever for her first loves of Faust, Goethe, Homer and Chaucer. So when I opine that I thought education was at the top of the list of school priorities, I'm talking about EDUCATION in it's purest, most classical form. Teachers teach concepts about things like math, science, literature, art, shop, etc. and students learn and show what they've learned by taking various forms of learning evaluation tools. No practical purpose is necessary for "Education." The "reason" to learn is the sheer joy of knowledge and the well-rounded people our children become when exposed to concepts that encourage independent thought. We support this with our taxes because of the remote possibility that this child or that could be the one who puts it all together. Maybe little Johnny Doe will devise a solution for the mess we have left for them through our greed and shortsightedness. I was not only surprised at how low a priority this concept of education is, but astonished at how hostile the current educational establishment is to EDUCATION with a capital E.

Talk about an education (no capital E)! In my three years on the school board and year of public activism prior to being elected to the school board, I learned quite a bit about the legal and moral obligations of a school district towards its community. There are so many competing agendas, I wonder if the pure concept of "education" (as defined above) can even be seen from the top of the priority list now. The first priority of a public school district is now social service. Some may argue that public education IS a social service. Each social service agency has as it's primary goal a particular set of services to render, be it CFS, Medicare, Medicaid, etc. The Department of Public Instruction gives one the impression that Education is their mission. Instead, the DPI has become a catch-all for services other social service agencies rationalize out of their own jurisdictions. Once government studies establish that providing an education is difficult if not impossible without first providing social service XYZ, it is tacitly understood that such services will become part of the school districts' budgetary responsibilities instead of the agency to which is rightly belongs. Examples are numerous, but I present a few here for your consideration.

Schools provide breakfast and lunch because it has been discovered that kids can't learn without nutritious food to bolster their braincells. Assumption made by the school officials : some small percentage of parents can't or won't provide a nutritious meal for their child so the school must intervene by providing these meals. The next thing you know, everybody wants to buy breakfast and lunches for their kids because it is convenient. The school lunch program is born, but the food is so abysmal that it runs at a deficit. To be profitable, food service must offer "ala carte" food choices every day, usually involving pizza and french fries, directly contributing to childhood obesity. Result: more gym class is needed, with more teacher salary necessary. Also, somebody has to referee lunch, so teachers are paid for that too!

Some parents aren't able or willing to spend money to send their children to preschool, so the state says "The physiologically prime time to learn in a child's life is ages birth - three. Everyone should have formal preschool opportunities, and we will implement universal 4K to solve this dilemma." The governor remains oblivious to 1) age four is already too late and 2) how far astray from the original High-Scope preschool criteria the impotent state 4K programs have wandered. The student teacher ratio far exceeds the 6 to 1 used in the study and the minimum teaching credentials of a Masters in Early Childhood isn't even close to the current practice. The societal measures of improvement were based on extremely economically disadvantaged children, not the average student. Oblivious that the 4K initiative has failed to "level the playing field" because it did not follow the protocol defined by the study, our poorer neighbor Michigan has started providing universal birth-three programs. I was stunned when my niece, a teacher in Michigan, told me of this development. Michigan has even less money than Wisconsin does.

Schools and day cares and parents complained bitterly about transporting kindergarten students back and forth between day care and kindergarten. "It's too much stimulation for the little kids going back and forth from day care; I STILL have to pay full day care cost for only a half-day of care," etc., etc., etc. VOILA: full day 5-year-old kindergarten was born. Many people were so blase about kindergarten they sent their child to school intermittently because the half-day schedule presented such an obstacle to them. Nice example you're giving your kid in prioritizing school. In an effort to get kindergartners to school on a regular basis, and to placate parents who wish to further abdicate their parental responsibilities to the state, full day 5K has become the standard.

Where else in the world do you find employers that encourage their employees to take twice the time to do the same job they did less than 10 years ago? There was much hoopla focused on going to full day 5K to support increased educational expectations in grades 1-5. This change (locally, anyway) has not wrought the expected benefits. The state test scores, at least in Evansville, have not only NOT improved, but have deteriorated. Ironically, the "Blue Ribbon" designation given to the High School in 2006 was earned by students who were all half-day kindergarten attendees. This observation is courtesy of Kim Miller during the first kindergarten wars.

Some of these initiatives began as a need for a few and were universally applied when folks got to feeling entitled to such and such a school service. Others are specifically targeted at children in need. All distract school resources from the prime directive of Education.

Some children come to kindergarten without expected socialization, often without "common" expectations of communal behavior. Teachers complain bitterly about having to teach proper behavior and not the "three Rs." How can you teach content when chaos is descending on you from all corners? So first they have to teach "don't hit, don't bite, don't push, don't punch, don't shove." As Mr. Hoffenberg used to say, "keep your hands to yourself. Do come to school on time, ready to learn every day. Be kind to each other and follow the 'golden rule.' " This is probably where the melting-pot nation of America has set schools up for failure in the last 50 year or so. Prior to about 1960, for better or worse, the "majority" agreed (more or less) to a common set of standards for living communally. Most kids came to kindergarten with an agreed-upon standard of behavior. By no means am I nostalgic for those days. I'm just trying to explain why I think it's so much more complicated for schools now than it was then.

With the sixties came revolution. This let in a much needed breath of fresh air and ushered in a more flexible attitude about what was acceptable communal behavior. Thankfully, that whole "be seen and not heard" thing went away! Schools continue to struggle to define behavioral expectations in neutral language that does not favor a culture or a religion. There are still people who don't agree with some of the changes wrought by the 60's (women and people of color having increased opportunity and influence, more relaxed sexual roles, blurred sexuality and an ever changing landscape regarding sexual orientation). To protest this turn of events, some parents encourage their children to violate the rules set in place by the school. I don't believe these parents instruct their kids to be blatantly disrespectful, but a parent's example under duress will guide a child's attitude.

How many times a day do you hear some little urchin call a kid gay, or an idea gay, or a circumstance gay, meaning lame or horrible, not the original meaning of the word (happy) or the cultural meaning of the word (homosexual). Where do you think these fine little citizens learned to subvert the cultural word for homosexual to mean lame or horrible?? I've heard hair curling stories from families in our district of how their children endured any number of unacceptable racist epithets for two hours on the bus every day. The parents addressed it with school officials and there was no improvement. In the end, the parents just told the child to ignore it and provided their own transportation so she could avoid the brunt of the little racists' abuse on the bus. While the parents were protecting their child by doing the only thing they had control over, this response reinforced to the child of color that she must tolerate this bigotry and, worse yet, emboldened the little racists' behavior. Some very young children will believe that this is somehow all their fault, as little ones often do, beginning the self-loathing many children of color carry with them in life. This kind of harassment language is clearly in violation of district policy, but a good percentage of the district would be in detention if it were routinely enforced.

From the view of a frequent volunteer in the lower grades, it would appear that many children aren't taught the basic "golden rule" anymore. People are fast to connect this to religion, but all people like to be treated with respect, regardless of their religion or lack thereof. If you treat others the way you want to be treated, no God or Goddess is invoked. Behaviorally, it's an all-encompassing rule. But it eludes so many children and their families. Staff are abused by angry parents and even angrier students. Children are bullied unmercifully. Schools must spend many hours a week on "character education," something that used to be taught by families and reinforced by the community at large. I have witnessed and corrected inappropriate behavior and occasionally gotten the universal stink-eye from children and their parents alike for daring to try to enforce a standard of behavior. The message from those who resent this intrusive reminder to act kindly is clearly, "It's none of your business, lady!" Anti-bullying legislation is necessary because people don't think it's important to teach their children to be kind and thoughtful. Many families embrace The Lord of the Flies passive child rearing mentality because it's easy. "Kids will be kids, after all!" Why some of these people procreate is beyond me, especially with the advent of reliable birth control. If you are going to relinquish your parental responsibilities, why even have children?

If you are content to let the schools shoulder these social service responsibilities, and much, much more, it is your tacit agreement that the school can do a better job than you can in providing this service to your kids. It is also tacitly agreed that you will be happy to pay for it with your property taxes. Some educators are convinced that the general public is "a ass," (apologies to Charles Dickens). There is a palpable attitude on the part of school officials that they believe they do a better job than ANY parent does with mundane parenting tasks. They have arrived at this conclusion in part because we parents continually cede our responsibilities to public schools. When is the last time anybody at the school called you to tell you your kid was acting like a brat at school? What was your response? Did you tell them,"My baby would never do such a thing. I'm sure you're mistaken." Did you try to blame some other child for your own kid's rotten behavior? Can you remember the last time your son or daughter was not feeling well at school? Did you yell at the health attendant when she called you to pick up a barfing kid with a 102 fever? Did you act as if your child was an imposition? Did you send them to school knowing they were sick, hoping nobody would notice that little fever thing? Can you blame people who have dedicated their lives to children for arriving at the conclusion that the American public is "a ass?" Is it any wonder that they are sure they can do a better job than we parents? Can we fault them for failing to tell us when our kids have the little problems, which then develop into big problems without parental support to help the teacher deal with it while it's still a little problem?

Please don't get your knickers in a knot, stewing over the idea that I don't understand that there are kids out there in dire need of all of these services and more. I have volunteered in the schools and witnessed students who have fallen through the cracks, despite the myriad services provided by the DPI. I firmly support providing these services, but I just as firmly believe that the onus of paying for such services lies with social service agencies. Then schools could stop diluting their resources and focus on Education first.

Parents must also take on their fair share of education responsibility. If you want the schools to treat you as an equal partner in your child's education, you have to step up and own it. You have to pound tables and seek help wherever you can. You have to shake the teachers and principals out of their Weldschmerz to show that you do care. Volunteer, go to every single parent-teacher conference, attend board meetings, ignore the attitude from those who give it to you and ask questions until you're blue in the face. The plain truth is that the school will not automatically give your child what she needs. You have to be his advocate. If you are a new "school-ager" parent, seek the guidance of veterans of the school district to maximize your child's education. If you are a veteran of ECSD, offer guidance when asked. Give new families to the district the benefit of your experience so they can avoid your mistakes and maximize the precious time available for learning. Each building in our district has its own distinct rules and culture, so continue to seek guidance from the veterans each time your oldest kid graduates to new school. Even after you do all of this, there will be a negative experience that convinces you that public education is headed the way of the condor. Treat it like the anomaly it is and keep trying. Eventually, all the hard work will pay off with a son or daughter bound for some form of higher education and a sigh of relief as you send them on their way.


Anonymous said...

What is really frustrating with schools,Evansville's included in when a parent(s) tries to take a active role in their child's education and only is met with attitude from certain teacher's.

A college degree does not make them Einstein but some are convinced they are and that they know more what's best for a person's child than the parent.

That is when you have to shake those tables/desks really hard. Because there is no room in education for that type of attitude from school staff of any kind.

Katy said...

I'm sorry it took so long to post your comment. We were on vacation.

I agree with you completely. It's one of the reasons I ran for school board in the first place. In my ideal universe, every child gets the education he or she needs and deserves. Not just good enough, or "those smart kids will do fine no matter what" kind of education, but THE EDUCATION THEY NEED. The teacher sees this and provides it automatically. Challenge is continually given until the depth and bredth of a child's potential is plumbed.

In the real world, this doesn't happen. This reality sets up a dichotomy in my brain and infuriates me. I get so angry because I know that I have two weapons in my arsenal that many people don't have to deal effectively with school bureaucracy. Number one, I am a homemaker and part of my job description is to personally supervise my children's education. My hours are such that I can deal with the teachers on their turf and at whatever time they need me to be there. This is a luxury that is invaluable in dealing with bureaucracy.

The second weapon at my disposal is a strong self-confidence. I will do what it takes to get my kids what they need. No teacher or principal can intimidate me. This works great for me. But what about the shy parent or the parent who has to work 12 hour shifts? How in the world can they possibly negotiate the maze of school bureaucracy successfully? Why should they have to? That's why I get so furious. Every child should have the opportunity provided for them that my kids get because I pound tables and explain until I'm blue in the face that my child shouldn't have to take a class that she has demonstrated through testing that she knows 75% of the material for already. Why on earth should anybody have to tell school officials that students shouldn't waste taxpayer money taking a class they will be sleeping through 75% of the time?

Can you tell this is my passion? Thank you for your comment and don't take the self-annointed Einsteins too much to heart. Keep advocating for your child and some day maybe school districts will be able to return to the prime directive of Educating our children.