Sunday, February 13, 2011

Public schools matter if....

"That broad [public trust] doctrine derives from the ancient principle of English law that land covered by tidal waters belonged to the sovereign, but for the common use of all the people. Such lands passed to the respective states as a result of the American Revolution..."

I clam on a tidal flat a few miles from here.  A few others do as well. Tidal water is public--any of us can walk anywhere below the average high tide mark, and so long as the water is deemed safe, rake for clams. Or fish. Or launch a kayak. Or just lie on the beach letting the sea lap at our toes.

Lots of people have eaten my clams, our clams. I have caught a lot of my fish, our fish. I have wiled away hours and hours at the ocean's edge, my ocean, our ocean.

"Public" is not a four-letter word. You can count the letters.
Public is, however, a misunderstood word.

If we keep misunderstanding it, our republic will fail as a republic. Some would argue it already has.

I teach science, but keep a copy of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights on the wall in class. right next to a tiny poster describing New Jersey's snakes. Every now and again someone asks why, and I'm all too eager to explain. Public schools exist for the benefit of our republic. Our republic depends on a learned, thinking citizenry.

We forget that sometimes.

Some classes are obviously tailored for this. Civics (where it still exists). History. The various vocational arts (cooking, wood shop, metal shop, home economics). Physical education.

Some less obviously so. English, when reduced to grammar, not so much. English, when sharing great ideas and helping citizens craft their ability to share those ideas, wonderfully so!

Science, when reduced to teaching the cell cycle, not so much. Science, when pushing children to look at the natural world, and start putting the pieces together, thinking about how things work, more so.

(We are, as a nation, confused about science--we think we need STEM education to produce technicians who will lead us into the New Glorious Economy, at least that's what those in power keep saying. The more we push science to feed our technocracy, the worse science education becomes.)

Public education, like the tide's edge and public parks, has become one of the few common spaces left. Few people know what "usufruct" means anymore.

Democracy cannot survive gated communities. Democracy cannot survive a constant drum of propaganda beaten into the heads of folks who have given up thinking for tribal acceptance. Democracy cannot thrive when small, powerful groups dictate the rules.

I fear for public education. Every time a family says my child's life is worth far more than yours, the commons shrinks. Every time a child has walls built around her to shield her from the world, the commons shrinks.

The walls are insidious. Charter schools (which, though "public" in name, defy the commons), SUV's, A&F t-shirts, gated communities, gerrymandering, and on and on and on create the image that your child is special, is elite, is immune to the world.

Does your Mayor send his children to public schools?  Do your local board of ed representatives? Your school district superintendent? Does your Senator send hers to the local public high school? Where do Bill Gates' children go? President Obama's? (I will give he devil Arne Duncan his due--at least he sends his children to public schools).

Yes, the reasons are myriad. Yes, we all want what's best for our children.
If you think the commons matters, if you think about that at all, then realize that your choices matter.

We may be beyond the tipping point. Some folks worry about the clams I rake, yet think nothing of the packaged clams dredged up hundreds of miles away by strangers. How do I know they're safe?

If you trust strangers more than your neighbors in the name of safety, and many of us do just that, then the local town hall becomes a quaint memento, the public school roof will start to leak, and democracy will fail.

I'm going to keep clamming as long as I can. I'm going to keep teaching in a public high school as long as I can. I'm going to keep writing as long as I can. We have a great thing going here in America.

The sad thing is, so few know what we got, they'll hardly miss it when it's gone.

Yes, we ate all the critters, (excepting the human kind) in the photos.


Sue VanHattum said...

>the image that your child is special, is elite, is immune to the world.

My child is special, as is every child born. I don't want my child to see himself as part of the elite, nor immune to the world.

I looked at the standardized testing being imposed on the schools, on the students. I looked at the fact that Black boys are overdiagnosed as ADHD, mainly through schools, and at my very active (not ADHD) Black and Latino son. I looked at how academics are being pushed on kids before they're ready. And I had to find a safer place for him to grow. That's my job as a mom.

I also feel that my choice means I have to work harder to heal the schools. I haven't done anything yet, too busy as a single mom. But I know I owe my community that.

doyle said...

Dear Sue,

I am older now, and my kids now grown, and, yes, things are a bit different than even 2004, when my youngest was graduated from high school.

I get why parents do what they do. And I get that single parents (or any parent for that matter) are busy as all get out these days. I understand (and am gladdened) that you plan to help heal the schools.

And I understand that you are truly too busy to do anything yet.

And that combination is what's killing the commons.

Much of this is, of course, out of your control, and your primary obligation is to your child. If the Sue VanHattums of the world are in this position, well, we may be in a tailspin from which we cannot recover.

That makes me sad.

Anonymous said...

As a doctor in your former life, you must have met this in the form of immunizations - I will not give my child the shot, because everyone else gives it to their child, leading to herd immunity. And my child should have less risk than any of those other children. When enough people think in this way, we get measles outbreaks, and the precious children are now more likely to be severely ill.
I notice that there has been more insularity even as the population has increased. The more we need cooperative teamwork, the less it happens. Are we just overwhelmed by picking up the slack for the nonparticipants?

Sue VanHattum said...

I think you're in a small town, and I am in Richmond, California, part of the multi-city spread that includes Oakland, SF and San Jose, really. The public schools in Piedmont (middle of Oakland), Alemeda (edge of Oakland), and many of the towns between SF and San Jose (also well-off) may include schools that avoid teaching to the test. This testing is harming low-income schools more than the rich schools, and small towns may get to slip past some of the more onerous consequences.

Egyptians are taking back their country (I hope), and I think we can too, eventually. But yeah, the schools are a big struggle. (Of course, they were never as good for people of color as they were for you and me.)

Deborah Meier's work is the most encouraging thing I've seen in relation to the public schools, providing some sanity in urban districts.

We just have to keep at it... Thank you for all you do.

doyle said...

Dear Anonymous,

The herd immunity analogy is a good one. Ironically, sometimes even immunized children get ill when an outbreak occurs, since (for a variety of reasons), immunizations do not always take.

We have become insular, I suspect because we believe we're happier this way--or accept what others (strangers) tell us.

I think fear has a huge part in this--much of the fear is irrational, generated by strangers who use your fear to their ends. Some of the fear is understandable now, given the grip those in power now have on the throat of our republic.

Many of us can still get very wealthy making up nonsense. Many of us can take dark paths to riches. That so few do gives me a little comfort.

If people would start thinking for themselves again, great things would happen.

doyle said...

Dear Sue,

I teach (and live) in Bloomfield. Our district is getting killed by parents who opt to take their children elsewhere.

We're a Title 1 school with a multitude of cultures under our roof.

The testing is killing us. I think (and pray) it will change when parents say Enough!, and urge the district to stop giving the tests.

Not sure that will happen, because of the Title I dollars we need. One of the huge shames in this testing game is that it has been used to dismantle education in the poorer districts.

I'm in no position to judge anyone on where they send their children. I just hope everyone looks at it the way you did, weighing the need to preserve community. I have no doubt that you have spent a lifetime fostering community.

But we're in a bind, a big one, at the moment, and I fear the yahoos are in charge at the moment.

Kathryn J said...

My school has been deemed "persistently underperfoming". An NCLB moniker that means it will be phased out meaning less stability and structure for students that desperately need it. It means I will probably start my third year of teaching in another school - three in three years.

The sad part is that there are some great programs. The juniors know that they will knock the graduation rate (what we got gigged for) out of the park because most of them already have the credits and have passed the tests they need. It doesn't matter - NCLB is "objective" and doesn't look at anything other than historic numbers.

I do need to resurrect my blog so I can stop hogging comment space on yours. However, I'm more anonymous over here and that might be a good thing for a non-tenured teacher with an opinion or two.

doyle said...

Dear Kathryn,

First, an apology--I thought this was your first year.

Second, a confession. Second year isn't easier than the first, as you now know, we just tell that to first year teachers so they don't run away. =)

Heck, write all you want here--I enjoy your words, and I'm not the only one.