Don’t Forget the Little People

by Diane Vespa

Our public schools, mirroring the state of local and national governmental affairs, are in systemic turmoil.

There is a prevailing high level of public dissatisfaction with the underperformance of many of our urban school districts. A panicky public looks helplessly to the federal government for solutions. As a consumer nation, we have become accustomed to the anaesthetizing qualities of stimuli, bailouts and subsidies. As a result, the average person mistakenly believes the solution is to throw more money at the problems. On the contrary, the interference of the federal government into our local schools only exacerbates the challenges they face. Additionally, the federal and state governments cannot compensate for what many of our schools are lacking today—engaged, vested taxpayers and parents who value education and give proper guidance and oversight to citizen-elected school boards.

The perception that our schools are underfunded is, for the most part, incorrect. A quick review of the Illinois School Report Cards at iirc.niu.edu will show that often, the schools that spend the most money per student are the lowest performing. I believe, instead, that education is becoming undervalued. School boards comprised of everyday, elected citizens, often with minimal experience relating to the management of multi-million-dollar budgets, and many having little background in education, regularly make decisions that go largely unnoticed. Eventually, the lack of public participation and input takes its toll on the output of board decisions. Only when really bad news is disclosed do we see any measurable amount of public interest in school administration. By then, like a freight train, it is difficult to stop.

How Congress is Hurting Our Public Schools
Most educators agree that the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act have harmed the quality of education. “Teaching to the test” has been a survival method utilized by many teachers to meet its requirements. This practice may improve test scores, but does not produce a well-rounded student prepared for a launch into adulthood. Many teachers feel that important subjects like science, social studies, economics and writing skills have been casualties of the new, watered-down “ShamWow” version of modern education. The result has been an emergence of the functionally illiterate high school and college graduate.

The NCLB Act also has some tough consequences for schools that don’t measure up. Underperforming schools are often torn down and rebuilt; people are fired, then rehired—an unending shell game that costs taxpayers billions but does nothing to address the underlying issues. Diane Ravitch, in her best-selling book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System describes it best:

Closing schools should be considered a last step and a rare one. It disrupts lives and communities, especially those of children and their families. It destroys established institutions, in the hope that something better is likely to arise out of the ashes of the old, now defunct school. It accelerates a sense of transiency and impermanence, while dismissing the values of continuity and tradition, which children, families, and communities need as anchors in their lives. It teaches students that institutions and adults they once trusted can be tossed aside like squeezed lemons, and that data of questionable validity can be deployed to ruin people’s lives.

In a misguided effort to address declining enrollment and test scores, school boards spend obscene amounts of money closing, re-opening, tearing down and building new buildings. Sometimes the recycled buildings do not even re-emerge as schools, but as offices for a burgeoning administration, as was the case of Peoria’s Blaine Sumner Middle School. They then vie for the highest paid administrators to administer a complicated labyrinth of bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo, while competing capitalist societies diligently plod along. Longer school days, rigid discipline and higher expectations of children is their time-tested formula for success.

Charter schools have emerged as a means to escape the trends of strangling state and federal regulations. Charter school administrators boast that they can boost student achievement with less money. Those claims make perfect sense, as it is exactly that that is destroying public education.

In Peoria, the new Quest Math and Science Academy had three times as many student applications as they had available admissions. It is truly disappointing that the panacea of unfettered opportunity offered by a charter school is not available to all 13,000 students in the district. We can only hope that the charter school visionaries are paralleling their efforts to loosen congressional interference and advocating for school districts nationwide.

Misplaced Priorities
Companies across the nation profit from the sale of expensive, new and improved education models paid for with tax dollars earmarked for children. Many of these programs suggest that our children can and should bypass the basics of hard work, repetition, discipline and the three “R”s.

Hedy Elliott, a primary school teacher in Peoria Public Schools and an expert in adult education, expressed her frustrations. “What is the 'new math'? What is wrong with the old math? It worked for thousands of years, and now we have to pay someone billions of dollars to tell us that we have been doing it wrong. If someone doesn’t know math basics in third grade, eighth grade, high school or college, they are sunk!”

The Circumvention of the Professional Educator
As public schools become big business for vendors and a bountiful garden of employment and consulting contracts, children have moved to the bottom of the food chain as recipients of educational tax dollars. Teachers’ unions have been criticized for being too influential and self-serving, and are often the punching bag for the conundrums that face our schools. This message resonates with a nervous public because it offers a single identifiable target to channel our dissatisfaction and conveniently deflects ownership of the problem away from self-reflection. Blaming a single entity is dangerous and will only prolong underperformance.

As teachers are marginalized and scorned, it clears a path for school boards and super-sized administrations to convert our schools into big business with budgets equal to, or greater than, the cities they serve—an absurd financial profile virtually unheard of just a few years ago. The role of the professional educator has been increasingly undermined as policies become driven by lawyers, administrators, consultants and contractors. If not a single teacher is asked to sit on the panels, committees and advisory boards that guide a board of education through the most important decisions facing the district, there is indeed trouble. Just as you wouldn’t choose a lawyer to remove your gall bladder, non-educators should not make major decisions on behalf of our public schools.

The Role of Parents in Public Schools
Parents simply must be more vigilant and attentive to what is happening—not only in their child’s classroom, but the entire district. District-wide policies, procedure and curricula should be parent-driven.

Parents should demand an administration explain how large expenditures of capital will enhance educational opportunities for children. If the investments that your district tends to make involve anything other than putting brilliant teachers in front of small classes of students while teaching a rigorous curriculum in a safe, disciplined setting, proceed with caution. In general, educational dollars should be spent in the classroom, not sent outside the community to a company selling the latest widget. No one will make better decisions on behalf of children than the ones responsible for their welfare. Be watchful and wary of people from outside the district attempting to make decisions on your child’s behalf. Get to know your school board members. Know your school board candidates and what they stand for. Be mindful of any large donations to a school board campaign. Make sure the candidate understands and is willing to implement your expectations.

Bringing it Down to the Classroom Level
In order to discern the best course of action at the district level, we must be cognizant of what is happening in each classroom. People who regularly make decisions on behalf of students must maintain personal contact with the student body. Personal interaction with children not only serves as a reminder of one’s purpose, but will also clue them in to the evolving needs of students. Working directly with children is not only satisfying, but offers insights that cannot be gleaned in any other way. A learning “disability” is often not a disability at all, but a unique, unmet need of a child that is creating an obstacle to learning. Lack of sleep, nutrition, a reluctance to sit still, fear and worry are common issues that prevent learning but have nothing to do with intellect. That is why small classrooms are so important. Teachers must have the opportunity to connect with each child individually. That is why district stakeholders and teachers should steer the district’s policy and curriculum—not outsiders.

Julie McArdle, executive director of schools for Rockford Public Schools and former principal of District 150’s Lindbergh Middle School, explained why parental input in regards to curriculum is beneficial. “We want fully-engaged learners and not apathetic learners. Teachers need to develop lesson plans that are relevant and rigorous, and that can stimulate, inspire and maintain the interests of students. A good curriculum and lesson plan will encourage higher-order thinking skills instead of simple comprehension. Many of these lessons will involve projects that will be continued at home. For this reason, it is important that parents, too, find the subject matter valuable and relevant.”

Signs of Hope
Several years ago, Peoria Public Schools, due to alleged financial concerns, closed the Blaine Sumner Middle School, and the students were bussed and merged into other schools. One year later, a beautifully rehabbed Blaine Sumner School was reopened as spacious offices for administrators and service providers, much to the chagrin of families of the students who sat in overcrowded, discipline-challenged conditions in other schools. Norm Durflinger, the interim superintendent, recently announced the Blaine Sumner building would be closed, and the service providers embedded within the schools they serve. At a garden party, Dr. Lathan, the new superintendent, told fellow parents she would be starting up a parent advisory committee. These are positive signs that the district may be heading in the right direction. Meaningful personal interaction and instruction between educators and children is truly the only way we will leave no child behind. iBi

Diane Vespa is a parent of two children who attend Peoria Public Schools. She works as a volunteer in the classrooms and advocates for sound, child-focused district policy.

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