Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Public Schools: And You Think You Have Problems

When my kids were really little I served as vice president of the PTA at Sun Terrace Elementary school for several years. When they were a bit older I was on the Glenbrook Site Council for a couple of years. I’ll admit I was more than a little frustrated by the lack of real, measurable success.

This is the Mission Statement of the California State PTA.

The mission of the California State PTA is to positively impact the lives of all children and families by representing our members and empowering and supporting them with skills in advocacy, leadership, and communication.

Sound vague? You betcha! Have anything at all to do with Reading, and Writing, and Arithmetic? Doesn’t sound like it. On another California PTA page is a somewhat more detailed list of goals. The use of "family" is laudable until you get to the fifth bullet.

We believe:
  • Every adult has a responsibility to ensure that all children have the opportunity to develop to their full potential

  • Parents/guardians are children's first teachers

  • Family involvement is essential throughout a child's educational experience

  • Family is the basic unit of society responsible for the support and nurturing of all children

  • Family may be defined in many ways

  • Our collective responsibility includes advocating for the safety, welfare and the opportunity for quality public education for all children

What did The Sun Terrace PTA do to further any of these goals? Oh, we had great ideas, but we wound up spending nearly all our energy trying to raise funds for the school. You’ve seen this bumper sticker?

Amen, and amen.

The first year I was on the Site Council at Glenbrook Middle School, Sacramento gave the school about $50,000 as part of a special program. There were certain guidelines, but (within reason) we could spend it any way we saw fit. How to spend this money was debated that entire school year. Several hundred dollars were spent for small projects the principal wanted to push through. Almost all that money just sat in a bank somewhere, accomplishing nothing for Glenbrook. I was the treasurer that year, so I pretty much know what I’m talking about.

We eventually arrived at a general consensus about using the money to buy computers and software for the school. We bogged down on whether to buy Apple hardware or PCs, and what software to buy. I’m an electrical engineer. I managed fiber optic and Ethernet voice and data network installation projects. I suggested we install a network around the school with outlets in each classroom that could be patched in a centralized multimedia closet from a server to classroom PCs and from a bank of video cassette players to TV sets mounted on the walls in the classrooms. That would give the school administration control over what was shown and by whom. With $50,000 to spend we could have accomplished a lot.

At the end of the year it was decided to purchase a round table with vertical dividers and Apple computers to go in each of the sections. These would be interconnected using Appletalk. These would go in the library and be available the following school year. Of course that was only going to cost a few thou$and. The rest of the money would be continue to molder in the bank. Or maybe the unused funds would revert back to the state. In any case, it was the last straw, and I was already carrying a Bunch of Bales.

I resigned. In my journal I wrote, "I attended my last meeting this afternoon. In retrospect I can scarcely believe I have been willing to subject myself this long to that circus."

In my July 8 article about the Salina Kansas final exam, I asserted that we might not be getting as good an education as people did a century ago. I said I thought our "entertainment" had a lot to do with the "dumbing down" of America. I placed a big part of the blame on problems with the family. I meant the traditional family, which, as I wrote on July 12 and July 18, is under attack. An example of that attack is the California PTA's assertion that families "may be defined in many ways". I’ll restate those four observations here.

  • Blue-collar vs white-collar families. Parents with higher education have different attitudes toward school than those who only finished high school – or less.

  • Families in which English is not the primary language. This observation is reversed in families from Southeast Asia, whose students characteristically excel. ESL does a lot to help, but the school system can only do so much.

  • Single parent families. A single mom has to do more than is humanly possible. So-called "latchkey" kids get into a lot of mischief while mom is working, and don’t get as much help with their homework. This problem also tends to exist in families where both parents work.

  • "Minority" families. The problem here is that many minority parents have low expectations. They haven’t seen the system work for them, they have experienced lifelong prejudicial treatment, and they transmit their cynicism, frustration and despair to their kids.

During the years I served in the Sun Terrace PTA presidency and on the Glenbrook Site Council I associated with teachers who were Caring and Capable. One little-known fact about California teachers is that, on average, each teacher spends about $2,000 per school year, out of his or her own pocket, on classroom supplies the school can’t afford to buy.

I guess the person I told you about in my July 8 article, who taught at Concord High, could have purchased textbooks for her classes. Right? How would you feel if the company you work for expected you to do your job but wasn’t willing to supply the materials you needed to get it done? Would you be willing to spend $2,000 a year of your own money on office supplies?

If you are like most people you expect to get paid for the time you are at work. You resist and resent unpaid overtime. The last thing most normal people would be willing to do is give up their weekends and evenings to volunteer at work. A lot of the parents I met were upset that more teachers didn’t want to attend PTA meetings or be on the Site Council. They expected teachers to be available for "consultations" whenever parents needed to talk to them. How is a parent’s time any more valuable than a teacher’s?

So far I've identified several problems facing public schools.

  • Our "entertainment" industry - whether intentionally or because it brings them the most money - seeks to dumb us down.

  • Families do not adequately support education - for a variety of reasons.

  • The PTA spends all its time trying to raise money for the schools.

  • The schools don't have enough money for textbooks and classroom supplies - the teachers try to fill the gap out of their own pockets.

  • Even when funds are available they may be diverted or held back because of management's indecision.

There are darker forces at work.

On Halloween in October 1992 the gymnasium at Ygnacio Valley High School was turned over to the local witches – ON A SCHOOL DAY – for a series of meetings and ceremonies. A portion of the "Faculty Parking" lot became "cult Parking", with "Fa" and "y" masked off on the sign. Our three oldest kids, who attended YVHS, told us about this and brought home a copy of the school newspaper. Below is the newspaper article.

I'll stop here and let you mull that over for a while before I continue.


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