Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Part Six - Education Reform and Community Organizing

Smoldering amid all the rubbish orbiting discussions of the present educational calamity, MeanMesa is impressed with one particular feature of the formidable expertise demonstrated by those who might otherwise seem to be most culpable.

Egad!  When the entire landscape is inundated with mediocrity, what "formidable expertise" might that be?

The answer is simple enough.  If, indeed, there is any area where the thing is actually performing, it would be in the ultra-modern, well devised practice of "blaming absolutely anyone else who might have gored the ox."  The teachers in their age old lament, blame the parents.  The parents, as taxpayers, blame the indiscriminate largess of school boards and city councils.  The students, in what might be remarkable frankness, simply state that the thing is so boring as to be essentially "child abuse."

Pretending to be more detached, the preachers blame "creeping Godlessness."  Pundits with ambitious claims for being either incomprehensible or notably "philosophical," assign responsibility to a weakening society.  MeanMesa would like to reserve its own proprietary bit of this flood of blame for the severely "altered" text books vomiting forth from the Texas Board of Education.

Meanwhile, the number of "swords goring the ox" simply grows larger and larger while the topic of the discussion, the educational system, staggers ever more deeply into the dismal realm of an almost complete irrelevance.  There doesn't seem to be much about it which might suggest anything particularly good in its future.

Is MeanMesa careening "off the tracks?"  Again?

Hardly.  Nonetheless, after all this ranting, it may be time for an illuminating allegory.  Hence, ...

Public Education Seen 
As A Soviet Tractor Factory

To frame this comparison, let's take a strictly economic look at US public education.  Hopefully, the more abstract, associated social implications will follow.  We can imagine it as a factory charged with the responsibility of producing  educated graduates who can go forth to constructively participate in the wider economy.

The factory was quite expensive to build.  Its continued operation is also a hefty, recurring expense.  There are the costs for labor, supplies, maintenance, supervision and so on.  Here in America, where we express all commitment and concern for anything as always measured by how many "American dollars" we spend to accomplish it, our "Soviet Tractor Factory" -- that is, our public education system -- is not simply an "elephant in the living room,"  it has become a herd of morbidly obese elephants with a horrible case of herd-wide diarrhea, all still crowded into the living room, all trying to, somehow, remain "under the radar."

Now, under the centralized manufacturing policies of the Old Soviet Union, the Tractor Factory was allowed significant leeway with respect to the quality of tractors it produced.  In fact, Soviet citizens and government alike pretty much grudgingly accepted the idea that a large percentage of the tractors made in the factory would simply never even start, much less ever productively plow a field of potatoes in the Ukraine.

In a similar way, even though we spend vast sums of tax dollars to operate our "public education factories," we have gradually come to accept the idea that only a few more than half of the "tractors" produced there,  that is, only a few more than half of the students educated by the system, will ever become educated enough to graduate from it.  The "non-graduators" will then issue forth to languish in the economic equivalent of the Tractor Factory's "parking lot of defective tractors."

Why would any dynamic, competitive, free market,  innovative American taxpayer -- or parent -- ever accept such an awful production inefficiency?  Would we accept, say, drinking water which was potable only part of the time?  How about electricity service for only half days when no one could know even which half?

Yet, here we are.  Not only are we accepting such failed production on the day this post is written, we suffer the additional burden of literally millions of  "defective tractors" -- that is, semi-literate, uneducated "non-graduators" already churned out by our "out-of-control" educational factories.

Thoughtful education reform energetically applied right now might "bend the curve" on the number of semi-literates we will produce in the future, but it will never rectify the damage our neglect has caused us already.  There are few jobs for these victims of our failed system, certainly even fewer which might pay a living wage.  So, where will they go?  What will they become?  Worse, what will become of them?

As MeanMesa visitors survey the landscape, the sickening reality of the situation is unavoidable.  This is not a challenge which can be met with a tiny bit more enthusiasm in PTA meetings or the replacement of few of the very stinkiest Texas Board of Education textbooks some school administrator purchased from his highly lubricated - $$ - brother-in-law.

Nope.  We Americans are apparently going to have to do a few things we really don't care for very much.  We will have to think our way out of this, and we will have to take some risks that our ideas will work -- even if there are no new, convenient faces available to take the blame should we fail. One of the "risks" which we will have to take has everything to do with our ownership of the system.

As it stands at the present moment, the public education system is an orphan -- it has no mother, no father and no one loves it.  That's right.  No one seems to "love" it enough to actually put "skin in the game" to solve its problems.

"Love" it?  "Skin in the game?"

Yes.  It is becoming distressingly clear that we have long ago decided that public education could be conducted as a mass production scheme.  In fact, not just a mass production scheme, but one with which all of us not directly involved could enjoy not only a quite convenient detachment, but also the rather dubious comfort of assuming that "bitching" about the outcomes satisfied our entire responsibility to rectify the calamity.  Our "wet dream" concerning this "skin in the game" issue was to amount to no more than pouring tax dollars into the monster and then complaining about the mediocre outcomes.

The astonishing -- and depressing -- aspect of this is that we all secretly knew that this hands-off, "orphan" approach would, sooner or later, inevitably lead up  to precisely the mess that we have now.

Easy, easyMeanMesa would like to offer a possible solution to this dangerous state of affairs.

Community Ownership 
of Public Education

Now, right off the bat, we must differentiate between the extremely detached, highly convenient and utterly ineffective idea of the "high speed PTA" approach and one which might actually work.  Many of us have suffered through the nearly endless lectures in PTA meetings.  We have, also, wondered about the possible utility of a quick, five minute session where we shook hands with little Tommy's teacher, asked a few vacuous questions about the boy's progress and, pretending to have been both involved and relieved, returned home for our favorite television shows.

That is not the nature of the community organizing MeanMesa is proposing here.  That approach has shown itself as utterly insufficient.  Further, there doesn't seem to be anything about such an approach which, even when embraced even more passionately, might significantly have changed the dismal outcomes.

So, how about this plan.  

In the elementary school a couple of blocks away from MeanMesa's Galactic Headquarters there are roughly four hundred students.  (For our visitors outside the US, these would be younger students in what we call here Kindergarten through the Sixth Grade.)  Some central objectives of this phase of public education is to teach the young ones to read and write, do some fundamental arithmetic and receive a "bit of this and that" information in some other fields such as history, civics and simple science.

Remember, somewhere between being in Kindergarten and being a Senior, finishing High School, half of these little darlings will decide to simply drop out.  Clearly it is not "rocket science" to conclude that such awful prospects have   their beginning right there in this elementary school.

If four hundred students derive from, say, one hundred fifty parents, and 20% of those one hundred fifty parents are actually prepared to take action, we might presume that about thirty adults might possibly be interested in forming up to "own" that particular school.  These thirty parents, organized in this way, could formalize their association as a cooperative.  Each one's membership in this cooperative would entail volunteering a number of hours each week to an effort to improve the school's performance.

What could such a group of directly involved adult parents actually accomplish?

Probably very many things, but let's consider a few possibilities.

1. These adults would be available to be physically present during school days.  If there are discipline problems in the classrooms, the playground or after school, a parent from this cooperative might accompany a student home for a discussion with the child's parents.

2. Some members of the cooperative might man a phone-in "hot spot" tutoring shop where students might call in the evening for help with homework.  This would offer informal assistance on an "as-needed" basis without all the moving parts of a formal tutoring schedule.

In MeanMesa's neighborhood, this would probably include some serious "second language" problems.

3. The active members of the cooperative would submit to a back ground check which would exclude extra creepy elements of the community from access to the young ones.

4. Truancy matters, presently handled by a ponderous civil scheme of police, family courts and probation officers, might be handled -- at least at the very first signs of trouble -- by a "friendly" visit, not by the authorities, but by a concerned neighbor.

5. The cooperative could preview text book choices.  The parents in this neighborhood are far more interested in sons and daughters who can read and write than they are in pregnant, 13 year old ninnies who have been taught that the Earth is 6,000 years old.

6.  The cooperative could advocate for the school in their neighborhood when legislative matters were to be decided.  Everything from teacher tenure to State House allocations to fix the roof, buy supplies and so on.

7.  The "rules" which would control the cooperative would be established by the adults involved.  We will either trust the taxpayers and parents who provide the resources for this school, its administrators, its teachers and it experts or not.  Of course there will be false starts, vendettas, unworkable ambitions and routine bumbling on the part of these parents, but the cooperative can correct such difficulties as it goes along on its mission.

8.  However, perhaps most important of all, cooperative members could pay attention to day to day educational quality.  At their meetings their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the scholastic performance of their neighborhood school would be a public matter.  These thirty parents would be aware about whether or not their students were getting the education they needed or simply being groomed to become drug addled drop outs.

The students might also notice that the community was watching.

Of course, at this point, the "nay sayers" will jump into the fray with their cynical expectation that parents simply don't care enough to make such a commitment.  MeanMesa doesn't think this will be the case at all.  MeanMesa thinks that there is a solid block of parents who will prove quite willing to commit four or six hours a week to support such an important part of our culture.

In fact, MeanMesa suspects that a few successful examples of this kind of community organizing and involvement might spread like wildfire into every school neighborhood in the country.

Hey.  If you are a parent or even just someone who is interested in helping out your community, start "talking it up" a little over the backyard fence.  Realize that an organization such as the one described here will not "spring to life" overnight, but also realize that it will never spring to life if it doesn't start somewhere!

Thanks for joining MeanMesa in this discussion of education reform.

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