Last Sunday I didn’t post and then on Monday I was sure I couldn’t post. I wanted to write something positive and couldn’t. I’ve been discouraged about public education during the past week. There are a lot of reasons for my discouragement, but they all come down to the misdirection of education reform. The problem is complicated, and I don’t have many answers. I know some things from personal experience in an excellent public school system, others from research ironically conducted for a novel I wrote a few years ago—who knew that West Tennessee had 95% literacy in 1917?
For many years America had the finest system of public education in the world. Perhaps some will argue, but where in the world other than America was a free public education through grade 12 guaranteed to every child with the leisure to attend a few months a year? Literacy in America has been uncommonly high for the past 100 years, contrary to public perception. It’s true that many children dropped out (about 50% as recently as when I attended high school), but most learned to read and do math before leaving school. In fact, a hundred or even fifty years ago, public education was far more rigorous in much of America than it is today. And while I can’t speak about this from personal experience, my grandmother attended Portland public schools and graduated at 16 with the equivalent of a junior college education.
Oh, but I’m not supposed to call them “junior colleges” anymore. I am to call them community colleges. And I am not allowed to demand higher level thinking and advanced curriculum from all who are capable because in my classes are many students unwilling to learn and others who are not capable of learning. Even worse are those who have been taught they are incapable. It was different back in the day when if you didn't want to be in school, you weren't. My students are shocked when I explain that not only were boys suspended from school immediately and without recourse for such offenses as having their hair too long or wearing jeans to school, but girls were expelled for being pregnant. Any student could be expelled for being arrested or “falling behind in credits.” Yes, it's true. Earn a conviction in adult court for rape and you'd never see the inside of a public school classroom again. Fail classes and you were expelled and told to return to night school when you decided you wanted an education after all.
I am not, however suggesting a return to these imaginary good old days. They were not good old days for most children. Racism and sexism were the rule of the day. My high school aptitude test scores suggested whether I would be a good secretary, nurse, or teacher, not whether I could run my own business or become an architect, doctor, or lawyer. It was expected that I would marry and raise children, that racial and ethnic minorities would stick to “their own kind” and shut up about it. Further, kids who dropped out of high school in the fifties and sixties often found decent paying union jobs, and if they were incapable of doing those jobs, or unwanted due to gender, race, religion or national origin, that was fine, because the general populace didn’t care whether the disadvantaged were being educated or later employed on an equal playing field. No one was talking about "equal playing fields." People did what they could.
They needed to support families. They had options through education. Southern African American families moved north for greater opportunities. Immigrants changed their names—or had their names changed for them—and disguised or lost their difference in a generation. People looked for opportunity and found it in public education, which recognized the value of knowledge for its own sake—to ensure an engaged and thoughtful population, which is necessary in any democracy. And again my argument sounds like a hankering after better days. It’s not.
Children were marginalized and ostracized for differences in culture, for language, for pregnancy or minor offenses, or for lack of ability. Schools did a good job for some kids, probably a better job than they do now for some, but times were different. It was a culturally-bound system concerned only with serving a narrowly-defined segment of the population. Even so, some of us worked the system and most children had a parent at home full time to ensure that homework was done and children were supervised and properly fed. All of this has changed: both parents work to support their family because they mostly have no choice; kids have no one at home to teach basic living skills such as home maintenance, balancing a budget, cooking, shopping, and child rearing; the unskilled and skilled union jobs are vanishing in a nation that has decided that the welfare of the wealthy deserve more protection than that of the common citizenry; the President attended private schools, sends his children to private schools, and has appointed a Secretary of Education with only a theoretical understanding of what a great public school system looks like.
And like most public high school teachers, I have in my classroom a mix of kids with a parent at home during the day and their own car and personal computer and color printer, kids with only one parent struggling to pay bills who have moved four times in the past six months, kids struggling to learn English and English at the same time, kids with severe handicaps and no hope of ever mastering any high school subject, and kids with anger problems because of past abuse, or substance abuse problems, or who need medical or dental care, or who are hungry most days, or who have been told they are stupid because they were not ready to learn what was expected of them at the time it was taught. They are poor, handicapped, abused, drug-addicted, and also spoiled, entitled, and insensitive to the needs of others. Here we are all together.
And frankly, that’s the good news. Here we are together seeking an understanding of America, of our nation and its purpose to contain and serve ALL people, not only the best and brightest, the strong and privileged, but also the weak and disadvantaged, the hard-pressed and those who need assistance. We all need a great, free, public education like the one I was fortunate enough to recieve. It will not come by improving test scores. It will not come as a result of teaching to those narrowly defined tests. But doing our best for every single child, teaching every child to think to the best of his or her ability and to understand his or her rights and responsibilities in our nation—that is a noble ambition.
[Stay tuned for how theory is ruining everything.]
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