Teaching

Our Most Valuable Natural Resource

Generally, most people agree that, “You get what you pay for.” And, usually it is true. So, assuming most of us subscribe to this bit of common sense, why do we think our children can get a good education at bargain-basement prices?

First of all, I cannot understand why we do not consider the young people of America our most valuable natural resource. It seems that we will spend more time and money trying to save a spotted owl than we will to save the next generation of human beings (from intellectual extinction). Yes of course, Iraq hangs over us like a giant cumulonimbus of horrors, the environment is crying, the deficit looms like a cancer; homelessness, jobs, crime in the streets, the very infrastructure of the country beg for attention and repair… but without good schools, without careful nurturing of our children — unequivocally our most valuable resource — where will all our best efforts end up a generation from now? Ignorant (badly educated) people do not know how or why to maintain a viable foreign policy, preserve the spotted owl, eliminate acid rain, conserve energy, fight crime and make peace.

How can people go to sleep at night knowing that we, the United States of America, the one remaining super-power, rank in the basement, among industrialized nations, on standardized tests for basic skills in math and science? The fact that we rank first in Nobel Laureates simply illustrates the problem I am talking about…that is to say, our school system is exactly like our health care system… the very best in the world if you are rich. But for the majority, ours is a system that has developed mediocrity to a high art.

The gap (chasm) between the affluent and the penurious has grown ever wider. George Bush’s “thousand points of light” turned out to be candles. He was the “Education President” like Herbert Hoover was the “Equal Opportunity Employer.” American schools need a Marshall Plan if only to get us back in competition with Europe, China and Japan. I remember a Dow Jones “News Brief” a few years ago which stated that several American businesses are giving bonuses to employees who go back to school. Well, Hallelujah, its about time business is waking up to the “resource” of an intelligent work-force.

Where is the failure of American Education? I think the answer, like so many things, is largely in the money. As Bill Clinton pointed out in his remarks to the convention of the National Education Association in 1992, the federal government was spending less then than it did in 1980 on education. Less money for more students and more problems; and things have not changed in the last ten years as we face another election. There simply is not sufficient financial support for good schools anymore. What is left is a shell of a system with everyone, from students to faculty, cynically “putting in time”. Not much has changed since 1992.

California is a perfect “laboratory” example of what has happened across the country. Thirty-five years ago California schools were ranked close to the top in national studies. Along came “Proposition 13” which slashed taxes and today California schools are ranked close to the bottom nationwide. To pretend that money is not the answer is to pretend that cigarettes don’t cause cancer. It would be nice if there were better answers to both these problems but there ain’t.

Good Education must be free and equal for all people. This must be clearly spelled out as a mandate of the Federal Government. This must be the Education Marshall Plan. We must abandon the farce of school (property) taxes and incorporate a school-tax program from increased state and federal income tax. Then, all monies for schools must be distributed equally. The wealthy have to be convinced that they must share their tax dollars now for the education of the poor across town or they will be spending twice as much later on for police, welfare and reconstruction. Bad education is like cancer, it must be eliminated early before it gets out of control — and it is close to terminal metastasis right now.

Many people actually do not know what good education is. I mean, if you have not had it how can you know? How often have we heard the lamentable remark, “My high school was good enough for me, it should be good enough for my kids.” Like good cooking, fine wine, a Mozart opera, a baseball game, real wilderness…if you have not experienced these things how can you be expected to understand the significance of their absence? Forty years ago we Americans did not know what good volleyball was until we saw the Russians and the Japanese at the 1968 Olympics. We had to see (and get beaten) to believe. To reiterate; it was the Japanese and Germans who taught us about well-made automobiles. Finally, from our European friends we have good beer today in America, and good bread.

The fact is, the average American public school is a farce compared with the many excellent (private) college preparatory schools across the country. The high-quality, safe, encouraging, respectful, joyful learning that goes on in these private schools must be the “right” of all our children, not just the rich. These private schools from The Dalton School in Manhattan to Phillips Academy to Northfield-Mount Herman in New England to Charles Wright Academy in Tacoma to Punahou in Hawaii should be the models for overhauling the American Public School System. We do not need to look abroad or waste money on more stupid studies about how to improve our schools.

This free and equal education is the crux of the problem. The wealthy and privileged must be made aware that there are high schools in the United States without Bunsen burners, without Encyclopedia Britannicas, without nets on the basketball rims, without showers, without computers, without enough teachers. It is one of the great mysteries of social politics that those who will spend considerably more for designer ice cream, Mexican beer, German cars and Harris Tweed consistently refuse to acknowledge that there is a direct fiscal relationship between lousy schools and crime, welfare, racism or teenage suicide. John Kozol, a longtime researcher in American education testified before Congress about the needs of our schools. One comment he made was particularly significant. He said not one member of the United States Congress sends his/her children to the Washington D.C. public schools! If this is true, what an unequivocal, unconscionable indictment. Whatever is wrong with the schools in Washington is probably the same thing that is wrong with schools across the country. If our public schools are not good enough for a single member of Congress then they are not good enough for anybody! Period! Is there some idiosyncratic twist of language, which makes this statement acceptable to most people?

The United States must have a school system with national standards in which one can get a good (and safe) education in virtually any public high school anywhere in the country — a high school system the equal of the state university system. Sure, some state universities have a bit more cache than others, but nevertheless, one can certainly get a decent education at the state university in Arkansas, Mississippi or Maine as well as in California or Michigan. By the same token, one should be able to go to the public high schools in Oakland, Detroit or East St. Louis or a small town in Mississippi, Texas or Vermont and not be in danger and get a good education. And I am talking about a good education; not a scrap of paper, which pretends to be a diploma of standards, which are flaunted by a functional illiteracy.

Basically, we are dealing with a massive prejudice; rich against poor, white against colors — particularly black. To pretend otherwise is reprehensible. One glance at the test scores of Blacks will attest to this… at least a hundred points lower across the board nationwide. We must promise the American people that we will eliminate the gap between the test scores of whites and blacks; that our objective is that eventually all young people, of all colors and economic backgrounds will score equally on standardized tests. Our motto must be that good education is as much a right as good health care.

The violence in our schools must be stopped immediately. Again, Jonathan Kozol states that some schools he visited were so violent that taxi drivers refused to take him to the school; he had to walk the last few blocks by himself. This is outrageous. War must be declared against violence and it must be done with a conviction that inspires us all to support it. What is happening to the young people of this country is a tragedy. The young people of America want to know that we will do for them what George Bush I did for Kuwait.

In a nutshell this is what has happened in American education: our schools are like the cars we used to make — big, ugly and inefficient. Along came the Germans and the Japanese and we all know the rest of the car story. As we should have been taking a closer look at the German and Japanese cars — the overhead cams, independent suspensions and disc brakes; and perhaps most of all, the quality — we need to take a closer look at where there is good education going on. Happily, in this case we do not need to go over seas because we have some of the best schools in the world right here in this country — mainly, the private college preparatory schools mentioned above.

Why do we ignore these schools? When is somebody going to wake up and recognize the good that has been going on at the many, many excellent college prep schools across the country (not to suggest that there are not also excellent public schools as well)? Coaches aren’t afraid to copy success. Hospitals adopt better techniques. Copying is the name of the game in business and advertising. So why don’t we copy our best schools? Who or what are we afraid of? Why not simply demand that our public schools emulate our best private schools just as our public hospitals emulate our best private hospitals and just as Detroit is finally trying to emulate the best German and Japanese automobiles.

Clearly, there is a conspiracy of ignorance among university education departments, public school administrators and teachers and teacher’s unions along with the general naiveté of the public, which keeps the private school experience in the dark. People just don’t know. I have experienced it time and time again…the refusal to believe that there are actually schools where students want to learn, where they respect the teachers and the teachers respect them and the teachers respect the administration and the parents and teachers work together to make the schools as good and happy a place as possible for young people. This is the fact of virtually every successful private school! Most people think I am fantasizing when I talk about such things but it is true and has been true for a long time.

But it all comes back to money; the lack of realization that a huge investment in young people today will pay enormous dividends down the road a few years. I am happy that we will spend any amount of money and effort to save an American pilot shot down in enemy territory. It would make me even happier to know that we care as much about several million young people every day in equally hazardous terrain, subject to equally hazardous assaults. And don’t for a second mistake this as a plea for the voucher system. Au contraire. The answer for America is simply to make all our (public) schools equal and good. And, I might point out that the best does not necessarily mean the most expensive and ostentatious — for many years the Volkswagen beetle was considered among the ten best-made cars in the world by Car and Driver magazine.

What are the basic ingredients for good schools? First of all, they are smaller and happier which translates to better and safer. Smaller student-teacher ratios (say, 15 or 20 to 1 student-teacher ratios compared to 30 or 40 to 1 in the public sector) mean better teaching. This is one of the keys to good education — small class size. Twenty students per class should be designated a national maximum. There should be laws governing class size no less than there are laws governing the foot-candles of light required in schools and public work places. Ten people on a basketball court seems perfect. Imagine the chaos if there were forty? Well, apply the same logic to any classroom and you can see what has happened to our schools.

As an aside, we hear over and over that young people in America lack an ability to express themselves cogently on seminal topics. Meanwhile, less than thirty percent of American families eat sit-down dinners and they all watch horrifying amounts of television; and then, the adolescents are stuck in English and History classes with thirty and forty other restless teens….and we expect them to learn how to discuss The Missouri Compromise or analyze a sentence of Walt Whitman or why we need to be concerned about wolves and owls? Kids want to talk about stuff and we are, in fact, muffling them by sticking them in chaotic over-crowded classrooms.

Secondly, along with smaller classes, there must be fewer preparations for individual teachers. One cannot teach six classes of forty students per class and remain effective, much less sane, every day month after month year after year. Private school teachers teach four classes per day with never more than twenty students per class allowing for more preparation time; and more time for extracurricular participation and student teacher involvement.

Thirdly, teachers must be respected more and paid more. The fact of the matter is that garbage collectors and grocery checkers are paid more than many teachers. More respect and higher pay will, in turn, result in better teachers.

Fourth, schools must be designed, built and/or refurbished to look inviting, warm, safe and conducive to learning. To a visitor from Costa Rica the average American public school might well be mistaken for a penitentiary. We need to invest in spacious campuses, bright classrooms and the best technologies. A lot of elementary schools are warm and engaging and most of our colleges and universities are very inviting…why do we think teenagers are bereft of taste and want to spend six hours a day in boisterous, over-crowded, monstrously hideous block-houses?

Finally, what these things should boil down to is a happier environment where students are comfortable and enjoy school, where teachers enjoy teaching, where faculty and administration are less at loggerheads and where parents are satisfied with the education their children are getting and, perhaps most of all, where young people will again feel the respect they deserve as the next generation.

These are the plain and simple facts of good education. Such education should not be the privilege of a few but the right of everyone. The gap must be closed in our schools because America will not survive the continuing disparity between rich and poor, the educated and the ignorant.

None of this can be achieved without massive federal support. Our little friend in Central America, Costa Rica, has no army and spends twenty-five percent of its national budget on education. It is the jewel of Latin America. Is there not a lesson to be learned from the comparison of investment in education and investment in armaments if we look at Costa Rica and her neighbors? Costa Rica has a literacy rate of about ninety eight percent; higher than ours. Costa Ricans are happy, hard-working people. Costa Rica is surrounded by countries with big armies and air forces and multitudes of illiterate people living in revolutionary squalor. Is it possible to pretend that education has nothing to do with the quality of life and the pursuit of happiness?

America’s tired young people are a reflection of the hypocrisy they have been fed for too many years. They are tired of the bake sales to fund their library or football team; they are tired of watching art and theater teachers laid off. The answer to teenage ennui and suicide is to convince them that there is a future worth studying for, worth living for here in America. Imagine what it must be like for virtually every young person with eyes to see and ears to hear. They have grown up with a government which has raped the wilderness, traded arms for hostages (and gone Scott-free, one might add) continues to test nuclear weapons, build and sell anti-personnel mines, financed a plethora of suspect tyrannies, invaded hapless Central American countries, ignored grotesque deficit spending, contributed to drug-trafficking, refused to pass gun-control legislation while posturing for safe streets, cut school funding, and lied to us on practically every issue of substance from AIDS to Iraq. Come on now, is it any wonder some young people are simply overwhelmed and say, “to hell with it” as they take another “toke”, buy a gun or just disappear?

Our families have frayed, schools are bankrupt and the streets are a battleground; the least we can give to the youth of America is the respect they deserve as our most valuable natural resource. We can begin showing that respect by rebuilding the place where they spend most of their time, the schools. As FDR stepped in to end the Great Depression with a variety of Federal programs, today’s Federal government must step in to end the inequality, violence and indifference in our schools. As Truman promised a car in every garage, we must now be promised a (good) school in every neighborhood. It is as simple as that. “As we sow, so shall we reap.”

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