Educated (or Not) in America

BlogHer Original Post

My husband forwarded me an email today from my daughter's talented & gifted teacher. She was responding to our offer to donate the video camera we thought we needed but never use to the class. We'd seen that the teacher was trying to raise money to buy a video camera so the class could enter video contests and record their experiments. After a short discussion, my husband and I agreed that we were too lazy to make decent videos and the kids should have it -- especially because the school would likely not be able to buy them one on its own.

My stomach dropped when I read the second half of the thank-you email:

I write grants to give kids these opportunities. I encourage you to vote in the upcoming elections for the school levy. Without passing, the gifted teaching team will likely be cut again by two teachers. That will total four teachers in three years cut from our department. We would all be traveling teachers with caseloads well over 40 students.

Private SchoolI worry the voters won't pass the levy, because they recently passed a school bond. People don't realize that school bonds are spent for physical construction -- buildings, not books, not teachers. And yes, selfishly I worry the special program she's getting in a public school -- the kind most people seek in private schools -- will be irreparably damaged. I believe public schools should fund programs to help kids at all levels -- those struggling to keep up and those who need a bigger challenge to stay engaged.

Ever since my first-grader hit kindergarten last year, I've had education on my mind. And as we've been in a recession mindset the entire time my girl has been in school, it's been dire news from day one. Budget cuts. Teachers slashed. I swear the public vs. private debate has been the topic of at least 25 conversations with different people in the past two years, and I just keep clinging to the fact my child is thriving in public school.

I worried about public school. Before my daughter was born, I taught four semesters of composition at Kansas City Kansas Community College, and I thought about teaching high school. I took exactly one semester of classes toward an undergraduate teaching certificate. (It was kind of strange to me that I was qualified to teach college but not high school with my master's degree.) It only took one semester to completely break my spirit and enrage me with the environment of despair among teachers in the wake of No Child Left Behind. The classes were filled with discussions of curriculum lockdown, teaching to the test and not having time to even explain anything before having to move on.

Fast-forward to now. I often wonder how my daughter's talented and gifted teacher can be so upbeat every time I talk to her. She persists in optimism, despite the frustration in her email. I can't help but consider it might be because she gets to spend her time with the kids who have been selected primarily for loving school -- don't you love what you're good at?

And as for parents -- isn't it easier to motivate parents like my husband and me, who not only had the benefit -- the privilege -- of higher education, but also the opportunity to see how hard it is to teach? I imagine it might be harder to motivate parents who never saw their education work for them. Detroit schools have had to bribe parents to get involved in the past year:

Under the program, parents are encouraged to register at one of the city's Parent Resource Centers, where they can attend workshops and find other ways to get involved in schools. They earn points for their involvement, which can be used for reduced prices at 15 businesses.

Then there's money. I've thought for years it's unfair that school funding is tied to property tax, indelibly dooming schools in inner cities. And that's just the public schools. Maureen Downey writes:

I go back to one of my first sticker shock experiences with private school costs. Fifteen years ago, I was visiting a friend and noticed that she had a note on her fridge from the class parent of her daughter’s private kindergarten class. The note asked each parent to send in $100 to buy supplies for the class holiday parties that year.

I was stunned at the amount, but my friend said she received such requests all the time from her tony Atlanta private school. I thought about my own conflicts as a class parent in a public school asking for $10 from parents for the teacher gift.

Forget the teacher gift. What about tutoring? In an attempt to make tutoring more affordable, some schools in Britain are outsourcing tutoring to India.

When he returned to London, Mr. Hooper realized that there was a shortage of qualified private tutors in Britain and that some parents spent hours driving their children to and from tutors, sometimes paying £20, or $31, per lesson. BrightSpark is charging £12 per session and pupil. Tutors are being paid £7 an hour, more than double the minimum wage in Punjab.

Last weekend, I found myself in a conversation with a bunch of near-strangers at my daughter's new ballet school about the state of education in America. One woman was from Russia, a man was from Argentina, and another woman was married to a Dutch man. It was agreed upon by this group of well-off parents that America was the worst-off, education-wise, and ironically then the most fun to live in -- if you're average, isn't it infinitely more satisfying to feel smart than to feel dumb, as the Argentinean put it?

And of course, I couldn't keep my mouth shut and started espousing the need to learn how to learn, because if you can do that, then you can pretty much teach yourself almost anything. I honestly believe identifying how you personally learn best is really the point of going to school. That, and forcing exposure to stuff you never thought you'd like and maybe still don't but is useful information. I haven't dissected a frog in 20 years. I find it helpful to understand how my organs work before I mix medications.

I was greatly relieved to read that the College Board, of Advanced Placement and SAT fame, is revamping its tests to focus more on applied learning -- as in, learning how to use those ten gazillion facts in the textbooks. And maybe fewer of the facts:

“We really believe that the New A.P. needs to be anchored in a curriculum that focuses on what students need to be able to do with their knowledge,” Mr. Packer says. A.P. teachers made clear that such a shift was impossible unless the breadth of material covered was pared down. Courses in English and math are manageable, Mr. Packer says, and will not be revised until later.

I salute that decision -- it feels more like learning how to learn. We live in a digital era -- true, we need basic facts and theories -- geometry springs to mind, and really all lower math, reading, writing, biology, physics, chemistry, history, government -- okay, a LOT -- but my daughter's generation may benefit even more from understanding how the algorithms behind search engines work, so they can find what they are looking for faster and get on with the real problem at hand -- what to do with that tidbit.

My daughter is only in first grade. What about college? Heaven forbid she want an English degree -- what the hell will she do with that?

Despite the fact that my daughter's college is the biggest thing my husband and I save for right now aside from our own retirement -- despite the fact that education doesn't necessarily have a 1:1 return on investment -- despite the fact it may seem downright foolish to fund a four-year degree or higher in today's economic environment, I still agree with Rebecca Mead at The New Yorker, who writes:

Even so, one needn’t necessarily be a liberal-arts graduate to regard as distinctly and speciously utilitarian the idea that higher education is, above all, a route to economic advancement. Unaddressed in that calculus is any question of what else an education might be for: to nurture critical thought; to expose individuals to the signal accomplishments of humankind; to develop in them an ability not just to listen actively but to respond intelligently.

I believe the school of life is also attended in college.

And it's interesting, because -- for all my recent anxiety over the topic -- the exercise of writing this post has helped me realize that if my daughter's talented and gifted program gets cut, I need not despair. I can ask her teacher for the curriculum and figure it out and tutor her my damn self. Didn't I just say I went back to school to teach?

It seems I learn best by essay question.

Rita Arens authors Surrender Dorothy and is the editor of Sleep is for the Weak. She is BlogHer's assignment and syndication editor.

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