I just finished this diary only to discover that it had been auto-published at 8 AM this morning in its incomplete state. It was my mistake (I set the auto-pub thing last night then decided to do a rewrite and thought I had successfully un-scheduled the auto-publish. Grrr.) So I am re-posting the correct version. I apologize if you already read this today. I've spent a few days on this trying to get it just right so I wanted to at least present it in its finished form. Thanks for your patience.
I have been studying and advocating for school reform since I was in high school over 30 years ago. I had had the fairly unusual experience of attending private school for a while and then switching to the public school system. It was shocking. My education at my private school was so vastly superior than the one provided by my city's public high school that I began writing essays on why I thought that was and what we should do about it. Eventually I was invited to speak on education reform at a state education conference that was held at my high school. I told them then what I'm going to tell you now: the single biggest factor in determining the quality of public education is the teacher/student ratio.
I saw it as a student and I've seen it over and over since. There was absolutely nothing about my expensive private school's offerings that were any better than those of my public school - except for the teacher/student ratio. In my private school, classes averaged 10 students. In my new public school they averaged 35.
In my private school, if a student fell behind, or required special treatment, the teacher had the time and the authority to accommodate. In my public school, those same students would just fall behind and eventually, fall out.
My advocacy for education reform is part of the reason I became involved with my wife, who is a teacher. Actually, she's an excellent, award winning teacher (sue me, I'm partial) who now heads a program to help disadvantaged students, mostly African Americans, get into college. This program has about a 98% success rate.
It basically operates like a school inside of a school with its own teachers and classes. I asked my wife to single out the biggest contributor to the program's success in getting these kids into college. Her response was, predictably, class size.
The program averages about 15 students to a class. In addition, they are provided with tutors, mostly volunteer college students, who assist when students have difficulties with the material.
This makes all the difference in the world. The modern mega-school, and its curriculum, is kind of like a fast moving train. If your fast enough to hang on, you can get through. But if there's a problem, and you need help, the system can't adapt to you. The train won't stop. You get thrown off.
That almost never happens in the program. Students have support. They have access to their teachers and they interact. More than anything they are allowed to be individuals, with individual needs, and they flourish as a result.
The industrial model of education - which is what we really operate now, giant factories of production - attempt economy of scale by mass producing education. This may work in a perfect world, with largely uniform conditions and uniform students. But it is absolutely impossible in the real world, where students are very much not uniform, vary greatly in their needs and abilities, often come from less than perfect homes.
There are many ideas floating around on how to improve education. Some of them are good, and some, such as privatization schemes like charter schools, are pure snake oil designed to part the public with their tax dollars.
But even the best ideas I've heard will have no discernible impact unless we drastically reduce the amount of students per teacher. That's a fact. And the education community, progressives, and progressive Democrats need to stop just defending what we have and start demanding more.
There is another primary factor in the failing of our schools - I would argue the most significant - that receives little to no attention at all. Perhaps this is because most don't recognize it as a school problem at all, but instead, a society problem. But only a fool believes you can isolate schools and their performance from the socio-economic environment in which they reside.
And the socio-economic environment in which they reside is very much like a war zone. Not a "poor neighborhood". Not the "rough part of town". A war zone. We actually have American cities that are as dangerous as Iraq. Last year, according to the New York Times, Flint Michigan's murder rate actually exceeded Baghdad's.
Expecting kids who are growing up in an environment like this to meet, or even come close to national performance standards is worse than unrealistic. It is maliciously negligent. In truth, the breakdown of our schools is merely symptomatic of the breakdown of society itself. And teachers should not be expected to deal with societal breakdown.
This is what was so troubling about the blanket firing of all the teachers at a Rhode Island public school and the consequent applause awarded that decision by the president and his education secretary, Arne Duncan.
If you've ever spent time in the ganglands of America, as I have, then you know: these kids don't need schooling. They need crisis intervention. They are in a constant state of emergency. And to the extent that any of them can show up to school and do the work it a testament to the resilience of the human psyche.
One of my wife's students was thrown into a dumpster when she was four. By her own father. Like she was trash. She was rescued by strangers who heard her crying as they walked by.
Another student applied for a scholarship. The application required listing the parents' income. It was $10,000 per year. I saw that application and cried. The boy's father had died years ago. His mother works full time at a hospital. I wish I could show you the family Christmas photo they sent my wife. They are so proud of the boy. He is the first in their family ever to go to college.
Sometimes I wish that all the people who are going to die each year from gang violence, crime, poverty, lack of nutrition, lack of health care, that they would all do it on the same day. Then the world would watch in horror. But instead, this emergency plays out slowly, over many day, months, years, making it possible for the rest of us not to notice.
It is our job to notice. It is our moral imperative. A big piece of American society is collapsing. Failing schools are only a symptom.
While my wife's little program is effective for some students, the overwhelming majority are being lost. In the wealthiest and most prosperous nation on Earth, we have simply chosen to turn our backs on these people. To not notice.
My wife notices. And I see it taking its toll on her. She works 16 or more hours a day doing everything from giving them rides, trying to get them scholarships, to finding them a place to stay when they get evicted or one of their parents gets thrown in jail.
My wife, the teacher, is basically a soldier on the front lines of the class war. And while her little program, which is like an oasis in the desert, can reach and help a lot of students, it can't even make a dent in the numbers of those falling behind. Due to budget constraints, the program has to pick and chose. Just like my private school got to do.
Years ago my wife and I would talk about the possibilities. That people would see the success of keeping class sizes under 15 students per teacher and would expand this program to the whole school, to all schools.(Remember, this is 15 students for one class. Most teachers teach five classes per day so the total student load per term would be 75 students.)
But of course, hiring that many teachers would cost money. And we all know where the money goes. Into the hands of looters and pillagers. And their lackies in political office.
Between the money we've wasted in just the last 10 years on war profiteers and corporate cons in the defense industry, and that which we've allowed to be sucked upwards to finance the parasite class and cover the gambling debts of the banker mafia, we could have transformed society - the way we use energy, the way we communicate, educate, exist with the environment. We still could.
One of Eisenhower's messages about the Military Industrial Complex has been somewhat overshadowed by his now famous warnings about the threat the M.I.C. holds for democracy. But equally compelling was his message about the real costs of corruption and war profiteering in terms everyone can understand. Please read this carefully.
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. This is, I repeat, the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron. […] Is there no other way the world may live?
–Dwight David Eisenhower, “The Chance for Peace,” speech given to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Apr. 16, 1953.
Someone with access to spending data should do a modern version of this. What could we have bought with the money the army spent on contracting software to make sockpuppet management on the internet easier?
The 2012 defense budget is over 1 trillion dollars. People should see what their choices are.
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