Friday, March 26, 2004

Every child cherished

crossposted at The American Street
Me (out there getting petition signatures for a local education amendment): "Support public education!"

Response (snarling): "We don't need public education."

Me (if you catch me in the mornings, when I'm brain dead): "Uuuh, it's important for democracy." I feel like an idiot.

Response (eyes rolling): "Oh god, don't get dramatic on me." I definitely feel like an idiot.

I get lots of other responses as well, including the more colorful remarks. I won't repeat those here.

Despite my lame attempts to invoke democracy in pursuit of signatures, sometimes I do get a nice response. Truth is, a good public education is absolutely essential for a real democracy. In this political environment, I keep thinking this is about our future but also how we care for our children and our children's children. It's about our core values that seem to be quietly slipping away slowly: equality, diversity, compassion, progress, nurturing our kids, honesty, fairness. Dare I even bring up inspiring creativity and imagination? Where is the discussion on lighting that inner fire so that kids want to learn and progress and love exploring their world? How about recognizing that kids can honestly harbor wonder and joy? I know we all did at one point.

And the reality now is that the public education terrain has dramatically shifted, redefined by No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The dialogue is now about standardized testing, sanctions, and codified language such as accountability, educational reform, and flexibility.

Maybe it's time to remember what our values are, our progressive moral ones, and create our own vision of what public education should be.

Care of physical needs. As a parent, when I think of nurturing children, it seems to me that the very basic physical needs ought to be taken care of first. When the foundation is not there, all else fails. By this I mean creating a safe place for our kids, such as taking care of the physical environment, like safe schools, clean bathrooms, the like.

Right now, the dialogue out there is about fully funding NCLB. We need to fully fund schools so that our kids have clean fully functioning bathrooms, enough chairs and tables and books. Let's fund infrastructure so that we have enough schools, buildings and rooms. We need more money for programs so that we can have smaller classrooms. We need to fund schools so inequalities don't exist between the poor schools and the wealthy schools.

Societal issues outside of school impact education. Education doesn't work when we have hungry kids, homeless kids, kids who need good aftercare programs, kids who need health care, kids with learning differences, kids needing special education.

Not only should we save Head Start, it's important to fund other early childhood education programs because learning happens long before kids reach kindergarten.

Organizations on the right track include Children's Defense League, the NEA, and Truemajority. An example of what True Majority wants to do:
    Double funding for K-12 education.
    Renovate public schools.
    Reduce class sizes.
    Health insurance for uninsured kids.

Nurture trust. Continuing past the basic physical needs, we need to pay attention to nurturing trust in our schools.

How does this work? The progressive educator and teacher, Deborah Meier, has been the guru and chief supporter for paying attention to trust. Her book, In Schools We Trust, is her manifesto for a paradigm change in public education (esp. pp. 20-22). Schools need to be trustworthy, the magic key for developing responsive programs that help rather than hinder students. From trust grows compassion and spaces for good relationships, which leads to a better learning environment.

Our teachers require nurturance with more money and support and time. They are our heroes, the adults guiding our kids. Barbara Miner suggests more money for "the most qualified and experienced teachers and principals [to] work in low-performing schools".

Sanctions and high-stakes testing, by the way, don't help in developing trustworthy schools; rather, they perpetuate fear and punishment. The NEA has been on top of NCLB, supporting 11 bills improving NCLB.

Building community. Building on the topic of trust, we also need to nurture community: increasing connections and our communication, decrease the barriers and separation among people. Good schools are strong communities, with active parents, motivated teachers, supportive administration, and a supportive business climate.

Local control of public schools is essential for a strong school community. Local control facilitates education that involves not just math and reading skills but art, music, science, problem-solving skills, creativity, and so on.

We do need to change public education for the better, especially for those schools that need fixing, otherwise something like NCLB wouldn't have emerged.

And by the way, regarding the high stakes testing of NCLB, help me get rid of that part of the thing. Let's excise it like a tumor. The NEA is onto it: here is the info. Please go write your reps. Scroll down to Testing, both House and Senate. In the Senate:
    S. 956, the Student Testing Flexibility Act of 2003 by Sen. Feingold (D-WI) would require the Secretary of Education to grant a state's request to waive the required annual testing in each of grades 3-8, if the state demonstrates that it has significantly closed the achievement gap or for two consecutive years exceeded the state's AYP standards. Local school districts in states without such waiver could receive a waiver directly from the Secretary if they meet the same criteria.
In the House:
    H.R. 3049, the Student Testing Fairness Act by Rep. Strickland (D-OH) would make numerous improvements to the assessment and adequate yearly progress provisions of ESEA/NCLB by requiring accountability provisions to include multiple measures of student achievement; giving credit to schools for improving student achievement on all parts of the achievement scale, including growth over time; utilizing more accurate and equitable methods to assess academic achievement of students with disabilities and English language learners; and targeting school choice and supplemental services to students in the specific subgroups that fail to make AYP.

Every child needs to be cherished, to be nurtured, to be seen as important and vital. As a society, while we need people who can think, read, write at a bare minimum, democracy demands engaged citizens, people who are passionate, involved, motivated. We need children who will grow up to take on this role, to be critical thinkers and will be savvy consumers of media manipulation. We need children who care enough to participate in their community, vote, be involved.

In the end, it's all about taking care of our kids, inspiring them, maximizing their potential. It's for the good of all of us, our community, our nation, our democracy. Our kids are the next generation.

I'm writing this of the top of my head. See references below for more detailed essays. I'm certainly not an expert, just a worried parent. If you have better thoughts and more inspiration, please go ahead, leave a comment, start a dialogue with us online and with others offline. Inspire us.

References and inspiration:
Deborah Meier's book In Schools We Trust, 2002, Beacon Press. Excerpt here.
Deborah Meier on Educating a Democracy
Robert Borosage on why public education is a democratic challenge
Dave Pollard thoughts on education
dirtgrain on what should be taught in education
Jay Bullock's summary on NCLB talking points