Auld Lang Syne

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Education, the silver bullet we turn on ourselves

OUTING MYSELF: I admit it: I am a school board member. I am happy to be a school board member. I love working for our students and seeing their successes. However, I wonder after every meeting if there is a 12-step program for us. While it is good work to be doing, it does get discouraging. Last night was one of those occasions when I came home very discouraged.

Last night was a public forum on our district's proposed Strategic Plan. This forum was well-advertised. It was well-organized. It was a poorly-attended gathering of fewer than 75 people INCLUDING some staff, the superintendent, administrators, student helpers, and some (not all) board members. The draft of the plan has been up on the district web site for quite a while with a "survey monkey" for the public to be able to weigh in on the details from home if they could not attend public meetings on this. I was shocked to learn that only 16 people have taken the survey, which closes before Christmas break. I can pretty much guarantee that our 6 towns have more than 16 people who will grouse loudly in the future as we implement (and try to fund) this plan. Discouraging to say the least.

We were asked last night to speak to any concerns we might have with the plan and its components. Several people did speak. It is notable that these are generally the same people who come to board meetings from time to time to speak on issues of concern to them. I applaud all who came and shared. But...

It became clear to me that we are like scattershot in terms of these concerns. One woman thinks the thing we ought to be doing is hiring more teachers to create additional sections of classes that get filled up (she doesn't mention the cost involved that might sink our budget). While I agree with her (I do agree), I have not seen her at ANY of the budget meetings and wonder if she thinks teachers are free. Another woman who does come to board and budget meetings complained that the plan is too long. She held up a two-sided laminated (in bright colors) chart that apparently was the plan for a now nonexistent district. Yet another woman said the plan was not specific enough and doesn't have dates specific wherein each goal would be finished. None of these women understands that this is a living document, a set of goals toward which we will strive or that it is not also a legally-binding document whose tenets must be accomplished. It is a plan, not a mandate. None of these women, and not too many others in the room, understands the components of a plan. OK. Not a problem. We can (and should) educate them and the rest of the citizens as to what a plan means and does.

My greatest joy last night was a set of comments made by a teacher (from another district but who resides here). He urged us to get busy on implementing Standards-Based leaning and reporting. He made the point that we (all the US) have been teaching and learning under antiquated models where there is not fairness in grading and expectations of time vs accomplishment, and where there is a punitive system of grading that discourages success for the long haul (read: lifelong learning and self-esteem here). He is right. 100% right. I commented (and I know there were some who are probably pretty mad at me for saying it) that we have been "talking about talking about" standards-based and it is time to actually DO it, for the benefit of all students and their futures. The gentleman who spoke pointed out that taking action on this will cost us (financially) way less than new buildings and we can accomplish it in a relatively efficient manner and in a relatively short period of time. He is 100% right there too. We need to be looking at other districts already on board with this. I have been saying this for over a year. We can accomplish this not by talking but by digging in, rolling up our sleeves and focusing like a laser on DOING. Talking about baking a cake doesn't get the cake on your plate. Assembling the ingredients helps but won't get the cake baked either. You have to DO the work of the cake. It is the same with Standards-Based learning and reporting. And as for cost: it will be minimal relatively speaking, and over time will so simplify the system that it will pay for itself.

My biggest irk last night was the comments of one man who droned on and on and on about our buildings and how old they are. He cited 3 or 4 specific buildings that are over 50 years old. His imperative to us was that we need to close old schools, reduce the number of buildings, and build new (and fewer) more up-to-date facilities. It is odd to me, since this man is a number-cruncher, that he doesn't see the elephant in the room: the cost of new buildings. I agree that it seems (at the face) odd to have 10 buildings for 2000 students. But what he misses (other than the cost) is that, for our 6 towns, these buildings represent community education and community spirit. He states that he cares about children, but his speech is all dollars. Oh sure, it would be great to have brand new state-of-the-art schools. Nearby Camden got one of those fancy-schmancy building complexes, financed by MBNA before it pulled up stakes and bailed on the area. But do the students in that luxury building fare better or have better lives than students in aging buildings? There are certainly some high-end programs there (because the town is affluent) that our district cannot fund. But in the basics, the subjects and the culture and the happiness of students, do our aging buildings cause a lessening of success for our students? I don't think so. We have, for the most part, dedicated faculty, staff, and administrators. We have students who, for the most part, work hard to learn. The truth is that there is unrest and unhappiness in even the grandest mansion and overflowing happiness in even the most dilapidated hovel. Why affluent support gets tied to happiness is beyond me, but it so often is. I say that good things can (and do) happen in old buildings and not-so-good things can (and do) happen in new buildings. Once safety has been established as a baseline for both, it is about what goes on INSIDE that counts.

So, I am a bit discouraged. Education truly is the silver bullet for ALL our citizens and for success in every aspect of life. An uneducated or an undereducated populous is one easily controlled and manipulated. An educated workforce (I do not mean to say everyone needs an academic post-secondary experience) is more efficient and happier and therefore more productive and prosperous both financially and personally. We all know this and pretty much agree, but what seems to be missing is the will to make it happen. We are in essence committing national suicide by ignoring our schools and tying funding to silly entities like property taxes. Education, pre-K through college or tech schools, ought to be FREE to all. It ought to be that teachers are once again given the respect they have earned rather than vilified and threatened by stupid things like merit pay, union stripping, and ridicule.  It ought to be that EVERYONE in a community would see it as their civic duty to participate in making school the hub of the community. Instead we make restaurants and bars our hubs. What is wrong with that picture? We are turning the silver bullet on ourselves people. We will not solve problems with only a handful of frustrated, over-burdened people working on the solutions while the uninvolved complain bitterly on the sidelines.

Meanwhile, I will stay on my soapbox and fight for our students' right to the best system we can forge for them.