Friday, June 27, 2008

An Education "Miracle" That's Not Working

published in Daily Hampshire Gazette 6/25/08

Summer arrives officially on the last day of school. And as millions of students begin another summer holiday, thousands of adults will spend the same time figuring out who to fire, or not rehire, so as to close school budget gaps across the country.
Holyoke, where I teach, just announced another 2.2 million dollars in cuts on top of the 25 million dollars already cut over the past seven years -- and so issued pink slips to dozens of teachers. Northampton is wielding the knife as will districts all over the country. But fear not, dear parents, dear citizens, dear students. Fear not because standards will not be lowered, your child's education will not suffer and no impact will accrue to our nation from a generation's worth of devastating cuts to our national K-college system.
And if we believe that then we deserve the "downsized" education our children receive, the mediocre college some of them will be qualified to attend and the worker-bee career they will get because hey, somebody's got to hew wood and draw water for those who are being educated to run the country.
How is it that We The People continue to accept these draconian cuts? Can you imagine the howl which would go up if Congress cut infantrymen out of the army while insisting it fight two wars by arming cooks and clerks? Can you imagine the popular uprising that would break out if police departments were told to eliminate their homicide divisions but increase the number of homicides solved?
And yet this is precisely the nefarious Catch 22 schools across the country are forced to accept. All teachers are informed that all students can meet all state standards and be prepared for college, while simultaneously being told we will accomplish this with the ever-increasing less we are given by school boards, state legislatures and the federal government. Words like "flexibility" are tossed at principals and teachers to explain how this impossible task is to be alchemically achieved. As if Jesus was able to feed the multitude with a handful of fishes and loaves by being flexible.
And on top of this absurdist endeavor, states and the Feds have hung the albatross of standardized testing around the necks of superintendents, principals and students. What mad fool could invent the equation that "Years of under funding + over crowding = Higher Standards"?
Students in Massachusetts must pass 4 MCAS tests to receive a diploma even if their high school record is one of perfect attendance and all B minuses. Indeed, my 8th graders will be the first class which must pass the social studies MCAS even though the Holyoke School Board "saved money" by eliminating all social studies teachers in middle school several years ago. (But being "flexible" the district just gave social studies to its science teachers to teach. The very subject which conveys history and citizenship was tossed off as if it was an elective like volleyball.)
Why is it so beyond the pale to say that standards should always go up, but as demands are increased on students, teachers and principals, the community, state and nation are duty bound to fully fund all mandates? Or why can we simply not admit that the academic excellence legislators and citizens will not pay for cannot be expected of our children?
Indeed, when I teach my students an MCAS prep unit I begin by pointing out that M-C-A-S is an anagram for S-C-A-M, and that is what the MCAS is: a scam. A cynical shell game, in which elected officials and tax payers pretend to care about education by raising the bar while simultaneously lowering the ladder students have to reach it.
But let's be clear: the equation is not that more dollars automatically means better results. Mere money cannot buy education nor enlightenment.
What Holyoke, Massachusetts and the United States of America are not doing is investing in its educational system. And that investment includes a modern physical infrastructure of buildings, desks, labs and shops; over-flowing libraries resplendent with more than enough books; highly trained teachers from the top of their university class who get help from districts to achieve their Master's and PhD's (including art and music teachers who aren't shunted to converted closets like the proverbial step-child because we recognize the research which points to the primacy of those disciplines in every child's education.)
Investment also means political investment in our public education system - that it take center stage in our national political life rather than being a carnival sideshow where circus barkers debate the inherent "evil" of Evolution or the wickedness of teacher unions while America becomes the least educated of all developed nations.
And yet in the nation which invented the maxim "There's no such thing as a free lunch", we get taxpayer uprisings and self-righteous rebellions when asked to pay for the excellence we demand.
This nation was founded on one and only one principle: that all people are created equal. But we know that we are not. That foundation stone of our society means only that all must be treated equally, all must be given the chance for an equal shot in life. And the primary, maybe the only way for all to be equal is a first rate education from pre-school through college. The public education system is the place where the rubber of all our honorable promises meets the hard road of what we are willing to pay for. And for 30 years now those promises have been getting run over.
What is most objectionable to me as an educator is the hypocrisy of a nation which will neither fully fund a quality education for all children, nor admit it is unwilling to do so, while carrying on as if it will.
Being a teacher in America now reminds me of nothing so much as the Biblical tale of Pharaoh bidding the Jews to make bricks without straw. But as even my five year old will tell you - making bricks without straw produces only mud. And the "mud pies" being created in schools across America will do us no end of harm when they are laid on top of one another to build our nation's future.
Joe Gannon, teacher and writer lives in Florence. His 8th grade class in 2006-2007 had the most improved Language Arts MCAS scores in Massachusetts. He can reached at