Thursday, February 19, 2009

Killing Wonder: Life in the Disaster Zone

I'm angry, so I am climbing on my soap box. Here I go: one foot, the other... If you aren't interested in a rant, you can skip this particular post - I won't be offended. But I have to say these things, for the sake of all the people yet to come, all the wonders yet to be made or found or rescued. And for my own peace of mind.

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Today the State Senate here in California cut the education budget by 8.4 billion dollars. We are already 50th in the nation for both quality of schools and (surprise!) money spent on education.

Here is the outcome, for many of our school districts:
- No more art.
- No more music.
- No more sports.
- No more libraries.
- It ceases to be cost effective to pay more teachers to keep the class sizes for the younger children small. Therefore, teachers will be fired and large numbers of children crammed in with fewer teachers, because it's cheaper - even with the paltry fines imposed for going too high on class numbers.

The people who hold the Senate hostage every year, the 34% minority who keep wealthy constituents happy and block the other 66% from running the budget in a sane manner, are some of the highest-paid legislators in the country. They believe that their constituents are only going to be happy if their taxes stay at the present rate, which is set somewhere around 1982, by my (admittedly top-of-the-head) reckoning. How does one run a big state like this one if the income is circa 1982, but the expenses are circa 2009, you say? Well, by keeping professors' salaries at 2/3 what they should be, so that working for a university becomes a losing proposition. Or by giving out IOUs instead of paychecks to their employees at budget time - never mind those mortgage payments, or that insurance. Or, by making the children suffer.

What I really want to know is, how will our children grow up knowing the wonders available to the mind without art, music, or libraries? Sports are important: the body is where we live, and we need to explore its capabilities. But sports are valued by even the most unimaginative members of any community. Sports will not die. Art and music -- they could, and they will. And without libraries, the children in impoverished communities will never learn to escape, never learn what other worlds are out there. How can someone in a small farming community ever get the chance to think broadly about ideas if they have no access to books? How will we raise literate, intelligent voters on such a meagre intellectual diet?

No Child Left Behind has been a horrible mistake. Children are evaluated, according to this plan, solely on their test scores. The schools must improve their scores over time (regardless of the level of their initial tests) or be stripped of control over their curricula and forced to institute state-mandated, test-oriented teaching programs. With these budget cuts, the time once taken to overcome this pressure and teach critical thinking skills will now become nigh on unreachable.

It's difficult not to believe these people have a goal: that of keeping our youth uneducated. The more uneducated a populace is, the more easy it is to direct them, the more they can be made to believe in concepts like a Fatherland, or a nationalist party. They're more likely to vote from their emotions, from their prejudices, rather than from their considered reflection of what is best for everyone. Without the perspective of learning, the sense of height and breadth one gets looking through the eyes of multiple authors, it becomes much more difficult to experience selflessness. For most people there can only be the one opinion, the one truth.

And the wonder! Children are supposed to be the ones who come up with crazy ideas. How many parents have had their child ask about something he or she has heard or read and processed? How many children each day hear a story and come home to tell their parents about it? Children are sponges, absorbing everything they come into contact with, and for this reason they are specially at risk. I can't and won't imagine the painfully dry desert the children here in California are about to experience. I can't and won't allow it to happen.

In our school, each class has a weekly Library Visit, where the children are taken into the library to return last week's book and to find a new book for this week. Some of the children literally don't know what to do with their books. They find something at random, check it out, take it away, and bring it back next time, without actually reading it much. But this is the thing: they are learning they can do it: they are learning the library routine. They love the fact that they get to keep this book for a week - all to themselves, not to share with anyone if they don't want to. It doesn't always matter if they read it: they get to have it. They have access. When I was in the bookmobile the other day, there was a kid there who didn't speak English so well but was watching all the people bringing in and taking away books. And get this: he had been trained since Kindergarten to do the same thing at the school library; he knew he too could do it if he wanted, he just had to figure out how it worked. While he stood there, watching, the librarian said to him, "You want a library card? Here, fill out this and this, and have your parent sign it there." The kid was back in 5 minutes, the form all filled out and signed. And he walked out with a book and his own card, back to the place he lives with six other people in two rooms.

You see, school is where we learn our options. In a perfect world, it's where we get to escape the confines of our income, our class, and our home life. We get to be, or learn to be, a different person when we are at school, for good or for ill, and in a perfect school system, it would always be for the better. If we take the options out of the school - if school becomes solely a place to go learn how to take multiple choice tests on the 3 R's and some science - what have we gained? What, in fact, is the point? Teaching kids to sit still and do what they're told for 6 hours a day? Where, in all those R's and xeroxed worksheets, do they get to try on all the other hats, to see if they can sing? Where is the wonder of discovery? How can schools which run on test scores and grim curricula ever teach our children to reach out, to flex their intelligence, to become the new explorers and inventors and artists, without which our world is merely a dim and wintry regimen?

I would argue that the most important thing in the world are those options, because that's where we find the tools to become someone who wonders about things, who creates things, someone who can make a new and meaningful world for themselves and others. If Einstein's lesson, when he got an F in math, was to shut up and sit still, where would we be today? There has got to be a place we can learn to go beyond our parents' ideas, beyond our station in life, beyond the expectations of those who would make us sheep. And schools should be the best place for it. I mean, really - where else are your kids going to spend days with someone trained in exactly that: the fostering of wonder?

So to those men and women dragging their feet and holding our children accountable for the financial greed of small-minded people: leave it alone. You will not bend us to your will. You will not make my children into sheep, nor the children around them. We will not allow it.

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"Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts." Albert Einstein

Some links for raising children with wonder and critical thinking skills:

- The always-fabulous Media Awareness Network, from (where else?) Canada
- The sprightly and jocular (to the point of condescension) Free Range Kids blog does still have good information on increasing kids' freedom in a world of safety-obsession and alarmism.
- The National Center for Fair and Open Testing's site The Case Against High Stakes Testing has a lot of information about combatting the testing mentality in educational institutions.
- Students Against Testing, a similar, more youth-oriented site

Some links about changing California:

- Wikipedia on how California has tried to divide before
- Census deepens racial divide, November 2006
- Three Californias: a sometimes blog
- Splitting California: a bibliography

Lastly, a letter to the President, from me.


Liam said...

Great post. The New York State government is pretty dysfunctional, too, being basically three guys in a smoke-filled room, but I've always thought it must be very frustrating to live in California -- there's so much wealth, but no way to spend it wisely.

Anonymous said...

The problem is not in the money - it is in the intentions of those who decide... Just enough education to make people "useful", anything above that would mean: people who can think, connect the dots, and start to resist... not the kind of people our rulers like to have as "their" citizens... BTW this decline in real education is a problem getting worse throughout the whole western world - no different here in Germany.

LP Sutton said...

Rant away!! Someone's got to say this. Bravo.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you. My husband is one of the underpaid, underappreciated, and underbudgeted public school teachers. Until he switched jobs a few years ago to a gifted/talented core program, for 10 years he had a $200 budget per year to provide art and humanities instructions from Head Start to high school for nearly 1000 students. This is 20 cents per student per school year. Unbelievable.

His school district cut his position to part time because "we cannot afford the budget you deserve or your salary." They offered him a position for $7 an hour (not even a quarter of what he had made as a teacher with 2 advanced degrees), without benefits or retirement, which is less than a greeter makes at our local Target. This budget elimination of his position was despite the fact that the school went from the 9th (yes, single digit percentile) to a very respectable 80th percentile in the 7 years he taught there. The superintendent of that school system makes $120,000 a year plus received a bonus when test in the humanities scores skyrocketed. Go figure...

I wish the best for you and your husband. My husband was fortunate enough to find immediately a better job that is still in public education, and he is thriving there. His principal from the prior school gave him a glowing recommendation and also called last week to see if he'd be interested in coming back next year for the same salary he made when he started there in 1997. He was polite, but I would have thrown the phone.

LitVamp said...

I'd also like to point out that the new "keep the children safe" legislation will cause all library books printed before 1985 to be removed from the Children's section. How will these books ever be replaced given current funding for our libraries?

I absolutely believe that this 34% desires an underclass to exploit. And seriously, if one more person starts squawking about "educatin those illegals", I truly think I will have to lop off some heads. Further, why would any of them care about public education? They didn't attend, and certainly neither did their spawn.

Do not keep your outrage limited to California idiots, however. I would also like to draw your attention to an even more astonishing act of nose-spite-facism: comments from governors (of the GOP) who will refuse monies from the stimulus act because it "goes against their beliefs" about how involved the government should be, or some such nonsense.

Anonymous said...

I agree - school IS where you learn your options. Cutting out art and music is just... insane. Recently a friend told me about a Bill Maher interview on Larry King Live she watched. Basically he says he doesn't think the government should be funding the arts. So, no National Endowment for the Arts. And I'd never really thought about it before, but I'm starting to think that money should be cut - and given to the schools, for art and music!
Why not funnel the money, if there is only a finite amount, exclusively to young people? I'm not saying this is an extremely well-thought-out idea, I'm just tossing it out there. To me it certainly doesn't make sense to have no art or music in schools, but still have NEA, which tends to fund art and music endeavors for older people. That's pretty skewed.

Anonymous said...

I agree - school IS where you learn your options. Cutting out art and music is just... insane. Recently a friend told me about a Bill Maher interview on Larry King Live she watched. Basically he says he doesn't think the government should be funding the arts. So, no National Endowment for the Arts. And I'd never really thought about it before, but I'm starting to think that money should be cut - and given to the schools, for art and music!
Why not funnel the money, if there is only a finite amount, exclusively to young people? I'm not saying this is an extremely well-thought-out idea, I'm just tossing it out there. To me it certainly doesn't make sense to have no art or music in schools, but still have NEA, which tends to fund art and music endeavors for older people. That's pretty skewed.

Anonymous said...

Just a small point.

If the state budget is the size it was in 1982, then remember that the average real income has been stagnant since 1970. The problem is not just a refusal to address budgetting and taxing sanely, but also regulation that has allowed people to work to slowly vanish under debt, and people who rule to amass vast fortunes.

Even though California is only a state, as the most populace one its policy has hugely disproportionate effect on national policy and its legislators cannot be said to be free from blame for the problems of the country as a whole.

thornate said...

I agree with your thesis, but just want to disagree with one detail: Einstein didn't fail maths. It's a common myth:

Heather McDougal said...

Ha! I swear, every time I don't check a fact I get caught out. Oh well, the sentiment stays, even if the facts are wrong. I'll think of some way to reword this...

Anonymous said...

This is my first visit to your site, and I completely agree with your assessment of the insanity occurring in our education system. I tend to look at a bigger picture and what I see is this: the legacy of the Republican party is the valuation of businesses over people. Taxpayer money spent to help the public get affordable healthcare was labeled anti-American/socialistic, but when those highly praised businesses stumble, public money is up for grabs. I've sat through many quarterly briefings, listening to overpaid executives justify outsourcing, layoffs, etc. as part of the capitalist system. Now, that they've blown their cover and revealed themselves as capitalist frauds, we are left to pick up the pieces.

Anonymous said...

Your just plain wrong. The problem in education isn't funding. The problem is the attitude of parents towards education. I haven't seen a single study proving that more funding would help the educational system in anyway. The only evidence you present is anecdotal. If parents really want these extras for their children, let them pay for them.

California has made its own bed due to its liberal policies. Perhaps sending home illegals that use civil services and don't pay anything in return would be a good way to start freeing up money in the budget. In the end only conservative budgetary policies are sustainable. I know you this won't persuade you of anything and you won't even allow it to be posted. Because you beleive what you beleive, even though its wrong. I guess you'd say its for the children, what a load of BS.

Anonymous said...

Hi there. I live in Toronto, CA, and wanted to share this great program -
There's hope yet!

Ed said...

This post made me a bit sad. It sounds like things (from many accounts I am reading) are much worse in the US than they are here in Australia. But I agree that a wealthy minority who have the most power want most people uneducated and definitely not exposed to competing ideas to their own.

Under capitalism (and agreeing with the gist of the previous response) I would have hoped that one way out of the oncoming economic maelstrom would be to invest in a country's future through education of its children.

Anyway, keep up the amazing blogging work. Every time I have dropped by there has been something of wonder.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I wandered in from someone's blogroll, "Changing Places," I think.

I've been pondering the issues you raise for some time. My context is Florida, but the gist is the same.

I am a retired lawyer, still a member of the Bar, so I get the Florida Bar News. There have been a lot of articles lately about budget cuts to the judicial system, and concomitant slowdowns in the progress of cases, increased caseloads for prosecutors and public defenders, etc. I left out increased judicial caseloads on purpose because I hold judges to be some of the laziest folk slopping at the public trough.

Anyway, the authors of the articles all say the State should not cut the judicial system budget. The question which pops into my head is, of course, which non-judicial budget should take the hit so the court system doesn't have to?

So, education. Last week there were large public demonstrations in Orange County (Orlando) about huge school system budget cuts. I did not attend, but the news bits I saw did not mention, or picture anyone mentioning, which sector of state government should have huge budget cuts so the schools can stay well funded.

The bottom line is that Florida (and I think all other states) cannot run a deficit budget. States cannot print money. When revenues decrease, something has to give, and often education is one of those things. Increased taxation may, in some cases, be an option, but times of decreased state revenues are generally the same times that people have less money. Hard to squeeze them further.

I agree with what you say about the value of schools, the importance of teachers, and the importance of teaching beyond the "three Rs." I care nothing for school sports programs, but that's just me.

In the long run, are we seeing a return of responsibility to parents for presenting material to their kids the schools either cannot afford to present, or choose not to?

Maybe we just live in a time of un-fixable problems.

Anonymous said...

One of the many sad things California has done with its schools has been to tie the hands of it's best, brightest and most creative teachers. These are the teachers who learned to work in music, art and all the "extras", and integrate it throughout the curriculum. I was one of these teachers. Then when NCLB came along, the district I worked for handed us a reading and math curriculum, along with a schedule of where in the book we should be on each day. I was able to get around it for 2 years, until the district gestapo began making visits to classrooms. I couldn't take it. Stay on your soapbox. Many of us are there with you. We will change the system to what it should be. It doesn't take a lot of money. Its how the money is used. Take it away from admin and put it in the classrooms. Look at charter schools as models.