Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Education Ruse

photo source
I gave a seriously hard time to a school board candidate at this past Saturday’s Tea Party meeting. I’m sorry, kind of. Even affter more than a decade, Mama Bear claws come out. So, while I appeared angry (and probably was, a bit, but we’ll just call it passionate), what I really appreciate is that the candidate answered the question at hand in a way that let me know how I would vote. And clarity is helpful. Plus, this question reveals a larger problem with the public school system.

During the presentation, the candidate—who is an educator at the local community college, with experience as a teacher, coach, and principal, who immigrated from a poor Asian nation and made good, and is probably a very decent human being—made this the main point of his presentation: “We need to concentrate on every single child. We need to be an advocate for every child.” Every child. Every single one.
He had pointed out that there’s a bottom 20% in every class. There are 130,000 current 9th graders who may not graduate with their class in four years. Some end up in jail; some drop out. How do we reach out to get them equal opportunities?
What I think I heard was, “every child” means something more like a specific 20% of children. So I asked more pointedly for a definition of every child.
What I experienced in this very school district was failure toward my children, at high school, middle school, and elementary school levels. The gifted program at all levels was useless. The elementary school level was particularly telling. It consisted of moving my daughter from the class at one side of the room to the class at the other side. Not to a gifted class, just to one that was less slow in math. That was the sum total of the GT program. And she remained assigned to the first teacher, so I wasn’t allowed to meet with the newly assigned teacher. I also got feedback from teachers that they believed “gifted” was how they taught “all” the students, which told me they were clueless about this aspect of special education. There was some resentment that any child should even be identified as gifted.
Meanwhile, the school got an exceptional rating—the highest rating. I was told that the specific reason was that the principal concentrated on a lot of paperwork that looked good for reaching out to low performing minorities and ESL students (plenty were assigned to the school, as well as bussed in). As a principal who should be supportive of teachers and responsive to parents, she deserved a failing grade; I had multiple experiences convincing me. But after her retirement she got a new school named after her, because of her supposed great leadership. Concentrating on that lower 20% pays off in ways that honor a person for ignoring anyone not designated as socially worth helping.
So I asked the school board candidate, did he really mean ALL children, including smart white kids? His answer was that we really need to direct our resources to the lower 20%. His reason: there are three things that every child needs for education success: parental support, personal effort, and school opportunities. If you’re missing any one of those, it will be hard to succeed. So we need to make sure we offer them the school opportunities that all other students have.
There’s a logical flaw here. The school programs are already available for teaching basic education to every student. There are even a great many special programs for slower learners, addressing learning disabilities. There are food programs to feed those whose parents don’t provide their breakfast and lunch, because students can’t learn if they’re hungry. But there still isn’t really anything to make up for lack of the parent component.
If the effort is to provide the opportunity for every child to reach his/her potential, rather than to even out the result, then the school component is missing for anyone well above that lowest 20%.
When the candidate says, “We’re not worrying about those kids; they’re going to do fine,” what he’s saying is, if you’re smart, and a non-minority, and you have good parents, the schools have no obligation to provide that third component to help you reach your potential.
He was right that my kids did get what they needed—because we could see clearly that they could not get what they needed from this school district, so we pulled them out and did it ourselves. We nevertheless had to pay taxes for their education—in addition to the time, effort, lifestyle change, commitment, and loss of income that it cost us as a family. (Note: I was glad I was forced to do it; that decade is something I would never give up.)
But he’s wrong that the schools were doing fine by my kids and kids like them, that he’s justified in turning his attention elsewhere.
There’s a lie inherent in the very idea of public schooling. The history of the system is that it was intended to address the specific problem of those lower 20% who were not being educated by their families. Really, it was more specifically aimed at an even smaller percentage, the children of recent immigrants. There were poor kids on the streets, while their parents were working in factories, and they were getting into trouble and making no progress toward becoming contributing members of society. So a factory-style taxpayer-paid school system became a limited solution to a limited problem—that quickly grew into mandatory government-control of every child’s education except those who had parents with resources and determination to educate their children outside that system, over and above the costs they were forced to pay for all the other children in public schools.
There’s a pattern of tyrannist control here, worth a post on another day.
After the Tea Party meeting, the candidate came up to ask me, sincerely, whether he had answered my question. Yes. Yes he had. He had told me that he will take resources from doing the promised task of educating ALL students and give them to the specific students he feels sorry for, and that is what he means by “advocating for every child.”
I am not against doing what we can for children who are missing the basic social capital that would so benefit them. But pouring money into mitigating that damage, at the expense of students who deserve the ability to meet their potential, is not the solution. That is a way to deprive society of future success. The candidate will not get my vote.
On the bright side, his opponent was there, the incumbent, Don Ryan. I have been unfair to him in the past. When I first became aware of him, he ran on a ticket with two other candidates, neither of whom I liked—one of whom is the most harmful member of the board but most adored by teacher organizations. I had not disliked Ryan at the public forum; he sounded capable of dealing with the financial issues the board faces. But his connection to the others was a serious black mark.
These positions are nonpartisan, so it is hard to get philosophy. Since his election I have developed the priorities question:
You have three constituencies that you’re accountable to in your elected position as school board trustee: taxpayers, students, and teachers. How do you prioritize these constituencies, and why?
Don Ryan answered very well. First of all, he’s responsible to the taxpayers, but the combined goal of the taxpayers is the best education we can get for the students, so you can’t also feel a commitment to the students. He said it would be like choosing which child I a favorite. He mentioned teachers not at all. I liked his answer. He understands it’s about the best use of taxpayer money for the specified purpose of educating the children in our community.
I believed after last November’s election that we no longer had anyone conservative on our board. But after meeting him in person and hearing from him, I think we do have a lot in common. He also volunteered that he has always voted Republican in primary elections, and has always been conservative. Good to know, over and above his other good answers. He’s getting my vote.

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