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Home / Articles / News / Legacy Archives /  First Person: On Our Own

First Person: On Our Own

January 30, 2008, 12:00 am
By
Politics can't fix our schools.
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One of my goals for winter break�along with not reading anything written in illegible handwriting�was to get a handle on the presidential horserace that developed while I was busy coaching corner kicks and correcting apostrophes this fall.

Lucky for me, the first New York Times I happened to pick up was running an easy-to-read, two-page spread comparing the major candidates� positions on several issues. Not so lucky for me, the chart didn�t cover the issue I care about most: education.

I have to say I felt a little left out. Unpicked, to use a playground term. Sure, I understand that bringing a loved one home from Iraq or paying for grandma�s insulin trumps improving the neighborhood school. And it doesn�t take a James Carville to realize that candidates are more interested in wooing heavy-voting baby boomers, who have already put their kids through school, than scoring a few points with us Generation Xers, who�d just as soon fudge a phone bill address than engage in political action when it comes to getting Johnny into the �good� school across town. But is education really so far from the American worry list that it doesn�t even merit mention?

Granted, there�s only so much space on a New York Times newspaper page, so I set down the paper and fired up the computer to do a little more research. The first thing I noticed was that the candidates� Web sites are so graphically similar it makes you wonder if they�re all using some Microsoft �presidential� template (the family photo; the horizontal drop-down menu; the red, white and blue). The second thing I noticed was that although every candidate (with the notable exception of John McCain) has a page dedicated to education, their stances are as similar as their Web sites. True, the Republicans focus on school choice and local control, while the Democrats tend to lean more toward addressing the achievement gap, but as I clicked from site to site, all the promises of excellence and high quality and �raising the bar� melted into an amorphous clump of education newspeak.

I did note that Hillary Clinton is the only candidate (beside our own governor, who was still in the race at the time) who promised to �end the unfunded mandate known as No Child Left Behind,� while the others plan to keep the perform-or-punish law limping along with monies or reforms. I was surprised that Mike Huckabee is very adamant about improving arts and music education, which for some illogical reason strikes me as unRepublican, and I was encouraged that John Edwards is ready to increase salaries of teachers in high-poverty schools by as much as $15,000.

But no candidate told me what I wanted to hear. No one offered to cut class sizes to 15, nor limit to 60 the total number of students a high school teacher sees in a day, the two �standards� that, in my opinion, would be the quickest path to improving teacher performance. No one stated we should invest in all of our schools�not just the �promising schools��the way we have invested in Iraq. No one was bold enough ***image2***to suggest we rise to the legal and moral mandate, handed down by the 1955 Supreme Court and a generation of pavement-pounding civil rights activists, to educate kids of different races and classes in the same classroom. And no one was forward-thinking enough to acknowledge that our national pedagogy is hopelessly outdated, that our 19th century system of bells and compartmentalized studies, designed to churn out obedient factory workers, may not be the best vehicle to foster the creativity and cooperative problem-solving skills future generations will need to navigate�and perhaps save�our rapidly changing world.

It�s na�ve, I know, to hope that a viable candidate will seriously advance a national plan to revamp the way we educate our youth. After all, most people who care enough to vote probably made it through school just fine. Many of us�myself included�even thrived in the public schools and, maybe, at our core, we can�t help but believe that what worked for us should work for all. Maybe voting America doesn�t really want our schools to change. We bemoan drop-out rates, shake our heads at the rampant overdiagnosis of Attention Deficit Disorder or propose organizational shifts in the way districts are structured. But we don�t take a hard look at the world in which we now live, study the excellent research on how people learn and then work to adjust our schools accordingly. And if your average American is not �rethinking school� (to borrow the name of one organization that is), there�s no reason for any of the candidates to talk education on the stump.

Which leaves me more uncertain than ever on how to vote. I�m leaning toward the Democrats, who at least aren�t threatening to withdraw funds from the system via vouchers. But the real lesson from my winter break survey is that, despite all the campaign promises, no politician is going to fix our schools for us. I�m often chastising my students for thinking they can learn by simply showing up to class and staring in my general direction, and here I was thinking I could effect school change by simply showing up at the polls and pushing a button.

Our next president might saddle us with new tests or flood us with money, but just as it�s ultimately up to the student to learn in the classroom, it�s up to us�the teachers, the parents, the kids and the community�to accept that the world is changing, acknowledge that our pedagogy is out of whack and show the courage�whether the White House is with us or not�to begin exploring the alternatives.

 

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