An Ideal Education

Ignorance and greed are this country’s worst problems, and Donald Trump is the King of the Greedy Ignoramuses.  I’m not sure what to do about greed because it’s a tough nut to crack – those who have a lot seem only to want MORE – but maybe, just maybe, we can do something about widespread ignorance.

Once upon a time, I wanted to become a teacher.  I was an ardent proponent of public education, and I still am, because there is nothing in our lives as Americans that is as capable of being the great equalizer among the populace.  But all it took was two-plus years of getting my masters in education (which was a joy, really, the theory and the practicum and the glorious surveys of children’s literature), student teaching in a bilingual fourth-grade class (still hopeful at that point) and a year as a fully-qualified teacher (except for a state certifying exam given only once a year, in March – weird timing for a school year, no? – on which I ultimately scored in the 98th percentile) relegated to being a teaching assistant for $3.85 an hour (even in 1985, that was a paltry sum, so much so that I had to take an after-school job as an administrative assistant for the local teacher’s union to just make ends meet) to completely kill my dream of being a public school teacher.  While I still have the utmost respect for teachers I’ve known, when I didn’t get hired for a job I was basically promised and that I legitimately earned because of nothing more than district politics and ill-advised penny-pinching, I became very disillusioned by the public school system in New York State and, by extension, the country.

In theory, public education gives anyone, regardless of socioeconomic or ethnic background, the opportunity to succeed in life with a little bit of effort and the support of a few well-placed and dedicated teachers.  And that is indeed the case for a many students.  But between the “Common Core”, mandated curriculums and excessive testing, and tenured, burnt out teachers beyond caring at the end of careers where they have felt unsupported by (largely overpaid) administrators and absent or downright combative parents – not to mention, as with everything else in this country, the haves getting more than they need and the have-nots struggling to make do with overcrowded classrooms and a lack of materials and technology – more and more of our children are getting left behind, resulting in the exponential stupidity of American generations (whether intentional or not).  The “smart” kids are fast-tracked and get all the best teachers and resources.  “Difficult” kids get thrown away, often leading to cycles of joblessness and homelessness, drug addiction and prison.  All these problems theoretically could be addressed at the root if our public schools were given universally equal treatment by virtue of a government that placed a priority on education and understood that a quality education is really the answer to EVERYTHING that ails this country – and even the world – right now.

Public school, at a bare minimum, should fully prepare every student for life as an adult, in all its aspects:  in addition to job preparation, of course, kids needs to learn about parenting, financial and civic responsibility, and even basic things like how to cook simple nutritious meals, and it all can and should be done in school.  And a child’s success (and by extension, a teacher’s success) in school shouldn’t be measured by tests for year-long increments of learning that really just measure your ability to take tests.  Rather, students should be entitled to advance to the next grade based on how many books the student has read that year (reading is SO important, and it should be self-directed reading for PLEASURE as well as information)  and what age-appropriate tasks like writing a letter or article, taking care of pets, doing chores around the house, community service and hands-on vocational training youngsters are able to do.  Kids should be able to pick a “career track” as soon as they’re old enough to figure it out and can prepare for that career all along the way, but more importantly young people should have a love of learning – learning should never be a chore.  In all seriousness, who needs to know all the stupid shit they teach for purposes of the tests?  Unless you have an interest in math or engineering as a potential career, why do you need to know algebra?  Weights and measures, fractions, percentages – these are important and have value in real life.  Geometry is maybe useful for measuring things, especially if you wanted to become an architect or contractor, but calculus?  Really?  Who needs it?  Earth science is vitally important to learn because we all share the planet, but chemistry?  Not so much, unless, of course, you want to be a doctor or a chemist.  Instead of teaching world and U.S. history as a meaningless, linear recounting of who did what and when, “social studies” topics should be relevant to today:  current events, how local government works and where laws come from, what it means to be on “a jury of one’s peers”, what the United Nations is designed to do at the international level.  After all, we’re not just American citizens; we are all global citizens as well.

People often argue that certain kids are incapable of learning and will always be left behind, whether by virtue of disabilities like dyslexia or ADHD or “low I.Q.”, whatever that random measure means, or simply because their schools lack the necessary resources.  Decades ago, I transcribed an interview that my ex-boss at OMNI Magazine, Gurney Williams (whose daughter, Kimberly Williams, is married to country singer Brad Paisley – she’s my only “six degrees of separation” to a celebrity!) with the educator Howard Gardner, author of Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (1983) that I found absolutely fascinating and it has stuck with me every since.

According to Gardner, every child is capable of learning, but the educator needs to figure out HOW that child is able to learn.  There are seven “intelligences” or ability types:  musical–rhythmic, visual–spatial, verbal–linguistic, logical–mathematical, bodily–kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic (Gardner later suggested that existential and moral intelligence might qualify as well).  Instead of testing for spatial and logical knowledge using traditional I.Q. tests (which have themselves generated controversy for perhaps being culturally biased), Gardner and his followers have developed tests that measure HOW a child is able to learn.  The key is then to use methods that are customizable for each child to get access to the basic building blocks of learning, like reading and writing and basic math, and then carry on from there throughout life using those strategies that work best for that particular individual, which would inevitably engender confidence and a love of learning that all children – all PEOPLE – deserve to have.  No child should ever feel stupid just because his teachers haven’t figured out the best way for him or her to learn.

I could go on and on with this (and probably will in later blog posts).  Even though I abandoned teaching (as I eventually abandon most of my forays into things I believe are my “true calling”), I still feel very strongly about how to do education THE RIGHT WAY.  I don’t know if it will happen in my lifetime.  Public charter schools organized around themes (public service, law, communications, etc.) are certainly a move in the right direction for older students on career tracks, but specialization could probably start even earlier.  Every child has to go to school, by law.  (Let’s exclude home-schoolers here; maybe if the public schools were better, those people who think they can do it better than “those public school people” might actually keep their kids in public schools and help to make them better, because – another topic for another day – parents need to be involved in their children’s schooling more than just a few loudmouths commandeering a local PTA.)  Schools should support FAMILIES; they should be a resource for EVERYONE, not just a dumping ground for kids while their parents go off to work.

Along these lines, I recently found an interesting website called “Edutopia” [http://www.edutopia.org] established by the George Lucas (yes, THAT George Lucas, but unfortunately no relation!) Education Foundation that features a lot of fantastic ideas for educators who want to make public schools more effective.  According to George’s mission statement:

“Education is the foundation of our democracy – the stepping-stones for our youth to reach their full potential. My own experience in public school was quite frustrating. I was often bored. Occasionally, I had a teacher who engaged my curiosity and motivated me to learn. Those were the teachers I really loved. I wondered, ‘Why can’t school be engaging all of the time?’ As a father, I’ve felt the imperative to transform schooling even more urgently.

“Traditional education can be extremely isolating — the curriculum is often abstract and not relevant to real life, teachers and students don’t usually connect with resources and experts outside of the classroom, and many schools operate as if they were separate from their communities.”

[http://www.edutopia.org/word-from-george-lucas-edutopias-role-in-education]

The objective of the Edutopia website is to highlight and promote those schools and programs that are, today, in 2016, DOING IT RIGHT.  Maybe someday, in George’s and my ideal world, ALL American schools will.  That’s the only way to “make America [even] great[er] again”.

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