Monday, September 30, 2013

Golden Door?

In a couple of weeks I will be attending my 50th high school reunion. Yikes! Besides causing me to notice the accumulating wrinkles appearing in my mirror, it has caused me to reflect on my many years in public education--17 years as a student from kindergarten through college and 35 as a teacher. I believe in the principles of public education, but what Horace Mann called, "the great equalizer of the conditions of men" [sic] is becoming less and less equal.

Public schools are the Lady Liberty of education. We are the golden door (frequently peeling) open to the homeless (literally) and tempest-tossed. We accept (by law, we must) everyone.  We accept the boy just off the plane from Iraq, the girl in her third foster home in six months, the twins separated by divorce, the boy who works 12 hours a day and gets paid under the table so he can feed his family, the 14 year old who reads on a second grade level, the gang member wired with an anklet, the girl who hasn't spoken in five years (We suspect abuse, but really don't know why). Sprinkled among them are the kids from well functioning families who get three balanced meals a day, dance lessons, tutors, vacations to Disney World, and emotional support. At least this is the way it used to be before the myth of "School Choice" gave birth to charter schools, magnet schools, and other variations of the same, and the sprinkles became fewer and fewer.

I say "School Choice" is a myth because not everyone has a choice. We know that students whose parents are involved in their education are generally more successful. Parents who visit schools, check homework, communicate with teachers and staff, attend PTA meetings, and are otherwise aware of what's going on in the school are able to guide their children through any rough spots they may encounter. These are the types of  parents who "choose" where their child goes. These are the types of parents whose children will fill the charter and magnet schools, not the children whose parents are not so involved.

Why aren't they involved? Certainly there is some dysfunction there, but  there are also the parents who can't speak English, those who are working three or four jobs just to put food on the table, those whose own poor educational background inhibits their understanding of what the "choices" are. The children in these families didn't choose their parents or the conditions in which they live. These children do not get to choose; these children remain in the public schools, despite what some would see as better "choices" for them.
Charter and magnet schools are the ones that choose. They choose whom they admit, what they teach, what activities they provide, and whom they exclude. It is understandable that parents who want the best for their kids may be impressed by "improved test scores." I'll save my rant about high-stakes testing for another day, but just a comment here--if a school can choose who takes the test, it thereby skews the scores in its favor. The test results of the public schools, where everyone takes the test, are also skewed but not positively.

Mann describes public education as an ark, outside of which, "all is deluge." What he didn't anticipate were all the pleasure crafts sailing away.

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