BIT BY BIT, PUTTING IT TOGETHER

It’s Friday, July 5, 2019.

It’s the 23rd anniversary of the birth of Dolly, a sheep who was the first mammal conceived through cloning.

You can see her taxidermied remains at the National Museum of Scotland, if you’re so inclined.

Some of the Democratic presidential candidates spent the day in Houston, at the National Education Association’s annual representative assembly. 

I’ve tried to watch some of it on a livestream. The first thing to say to this group of educators: Learn how to get your livestream not to continually cut out.

The candidates I was able to watch included Beto O’Rourke and Elizabeth Warren, who seemed to get energetic support from the assembled teachers, and Joe Biden and Amy Klobuchar, who were greeted politely.

All of the candidates, of course, played to the crowd when it came to teachers and unions, which is what NEA combines. Understandably, everybody in that room hates Betsy DeVos – in fact, I didn’t once hear the name of Trump, who is responsible for DeVos being education secretary in the first place.

Two issues that came up a lot were charter schools and high-stakes testing.

So here are some thoughts about both:

Charter schools are a Darwinian concept promoted by people, in many instances, who frown upon Darwin.

The idea is that you throw an educational lifeline to some disadvantaged students through a lottery or whatever other method, they will emerge well-educated. And either they’ll spread that to their peers or a select group of the next generation will get the lucky break.

Charter schools basically throw in the towel on educating as many kids as possible – the basic principle of the nation’s public schools since the 19th century. They absorb the resources of a school district, usually in an urban area, and leave what remains for the mass of students not quite as fortunate.

I’m sure I’m presenting that in a biased liberal way. I don’t care.

I believe in educating everybody.

Public education in this country has been a pariah my entire life. 

Its funding is a joke. 

If you live in a place where well-to-do people understand they will be weller-to-do if they fund public schools lavishly, thereby raising their property values faster than their property taxes, you generally have great schools.

If you live in a place where the population has other considerations – elderly people on a fixed income, working people struggling to make ends meet – that dream of flipping the house for 7 times what you paid for it is pretty ephemeral. Reality tends to shake those notions quickly.

So the rationale is that, since the resources are limited, it’s better that a few kids get ahead than for all of them to fall short.

And, because a lot of times the charters for charter schools take them out of the jurisdiction of the school systems that create them, they can disregard teacher unions and pay rules that conservatives seem to believe are the real problem in public education.

One other thing about charter schools: They seem like a breeding ground for schemers. 

They’re yet another opportunity for the entrepreneurial to indulge in corrupt money-making. As happened in Los Angeles and Phoenix for two quick examples.

All of the Democratic presidential candidates are saying something similar: Charter schools don’t seem to work. 

The problem is that Democrats were willing to go along with the idea of setting up these schools in the first place. The Clinton administration trumpeted this idea in the 1990s and tried to get NEA and the other teachers’ group – the American Federation of Teachers (disclaimer: I’m a member) – to go along.

So Democrats share some responsibility for the charter school debacle.

And they’re going to need to make a commitment to find ways to fund public education more adequately than we have for decades. 

For starters, rebuilding decaying public school structures should be part of a massive infrastructure push. Trump promised one, but of course he wasn’t going to be serious about that unless all the schools were named after him or his offspring.

All the soundings about raising teacher pay and providing adequate funding for kindergarten and preschool are great beginnings. The next Democratic president, hopefully taking office 18-1/2 months from now, needs to make sure he or she delivers.

The other concern is high-stakes testing.

I’m not exactly sure how this situation devolved. So let me explain my beliefs on this.

Back in the ‘90s, there was a push for national standards. The theory is that a kid in South Carolina who studies math in the fourth grade should know the same basics as if he or she was a fourth grader studying math in Massachusetts or Oregon.

Somehow, this has gotten perverted. The onus has fallen on the kids – if they can’t attain a certain level, they are marked as failures and treated as such.

And I’ve never thought that’s the point of standardized testing. It always should have been a message to school administrators, not kids.

Standardized testing was never meant to corrupt a school’s curriculum. I just think the idea of “teaching to the test” was an easy out for lazy or underfunded administrators. Saying the kids need to know “Moby-Dick” so let’s not read “As You Like It.”  Getting them out of offering music, art and other enrichment classes.

So when candidates such as Warren say that she’ll eliminate high-stakes testing and let teachers determine the best way to reach a student, I get it. I don’t think 8-year-olds or even 14-year-olds should face stomach ache-inducing pressure. And teachers should be trusted like the professionals they are.

What’s most important is that our kids should be excited to learn, so that the basics come naturally and the enhancements show them what’s possible in something that interests them. That’s the standard we need for our country.

And, since the current titleholder doesn’t seem to care much about kids or education, our next president needs to think about these things on our children’s behalf.

Standard

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