The growth of services like donorschoose.org (that Craig Newmark supports) for teachers in need of the most basic of classroom supplies such as chairs and storage boxes indicates further the lack of support from the general public for its own elementary schools. What is truly sad is this is around the time when children are most impressionable.
There are plenty of problems around this whole issue which I won't raise them all today. What I will raise is what it says about us as a society. Many of us say we value our children and their education but here we are nickel and diming the very professionals who teach our children every day. To the children of the general public, teachers are the frontline and faces of their education. One can say we waste a lot of money on a lot of things but when it comes to education, it is one thing that should receive the benefit of the doubt.
I recently read an insightful article written by Geoffrey James called "Want Successful Kids? Listen to the Teachers." It makes a very convincing argument for public schools and their teachers, especially the following points as he wraps up the article:
Many critics of public schools are financially motivated.
Critics of public school teachers are often wealthy folk who stand to profit if the tax dollars spent on schools are directed towards corporate profits. While there's nothing wrong with profit, taking money from children's education to pay investors is, well, kinda disgusting.
The track record of for-profit schooling is appalling. For-profit colleges, for example, have benefited investors and exploded student debt, while providing mostly useless degrees. Replicating the expensive failure of such colleges at the K-12 level is, frankly, idiotic.
What I find most frustrating about this privatization nonsense is that the success of the United States--including our primacy in high tech--is largely the result of a public school system that's successfully educated generations of entrepreneurs.
Despite all of my years of advanced education, the teacher who had the most effect on me was an elementary school teacher. Her name is Ms. Christine Franzke, who taught at Jennie Reed Elementary, a public school in Tacoma, Washington.
The day I was transferred to her class at Reed Elementary I must admit I was not happy. She was an unknown and I liked the teacher they placed me with originally. But what I thought was a problem was actually a blessing for the next two years and for the rest of my life.
Ms. Franzke shortly transformed me from a rather mediocre student to someone who expected more. Probably because she expected more from all her students. She challenged us without being mean or impatient.
She also looked for the good in everyone. I remember there was a classmate who had the habit of acting up in class. One day he was especially bad. Someone later that day asked her if she ever had a bad student, and her reply was, "No. All my students are good."
My dear mother liked to recount in parent-teacher conferences the time I had my little sister turn off the lights at night because I was afraid of the dark. Watching too many Dracula movies does that to a kid. Ms. Franzke was the only teacher who didn't laugh. She said it was a normal part of growing up. It was a small gesture but it was significant to me, which I remember to this day.
Whatever her exact methods were, all I know was they had a positive effect on me. Instead of looking at the behavior of other kids and how I can copy them, I was focusing on myself and how I wanted to behave. I started to prepare more. I competed. I wrote stories, improving with each story. I was the back-to-back champion of mancala, a game she introduced to us from her travels. I even ran a mile almost every day during lunch, which accumulated to 200 miles over the two years. I began the life habit of trying my best and to perform at my potential.
By the time I completed the 3rd Grade with Ms. Franzke, I was able to skip the 4th Grade after being tested, and did even better in 5th Grade. It was the springboard to bigger things in life, and that was all I needed. And it came from a public school teacher, the very one who would be on strike in Oklahoma, Kentucky, or West Virginia today.
So it's hard to argue against American public schools when I am myself a product of American public schools. To use a proverb, the proof isn't only in the pudding -- the proof of the pudding is in the eating. When American public schools were well-funded and gave trained, professional teachers the flexibility to teach a well-rounded curriculum instead of centering on a state test, students like me were taught to think beyond the norm by thinking for ourselves. We were introduced to new things from all around the world, not only how to take tests well filling in bubbles with a No. 2 pencil in an academic vacuum.
Now I'm not saying my life would be a life of crime if I didn't meet Christine Franzke, who I still keep in contact with and who I acquired Franzke.com for, but my life would definitely be different. My initial public education has led to more public education at a public college, a private college, and ultimately a life of learning. The best part is I'm not the only example because I meet others with similar past public education experiences all the time.
Americans tend to lament about how our kids aren't proficient in math or science versus other nations. That is a valid concern but I believe we are failing to continue on the tradition of building what Americans are truly good at: creativity and innovation. That takes much more than rote knowledge. I performed beyond the basics of school because Ms. Franzke had the ability to teach me and other students like me things beyond the basics of school. Nowadays, however, teachers like her are limited and tied down to a regimen that helps administrators track students' test taking skills better, but in terms of students receiving a well-rounded education that actually produces a nation of citizens who can critically think for themselves in new situations, it is a much greater concern.
Sun Tzu said that people can clearly see how victory was achieved but those victories cannot be duplicated. This is because the world changes constantly, variables appear and disappear, and hence every situation is different. Until we have leaders who can think beyond rote knowledge and are capable of devising appropriate strategies that fit new circumstances, our success in the future would be in peril.
So imagine if we as a society invested more into what works at the frontend (e.g., well-funded elementary schools) and not pay for our lack of preparation in the backend (e.g., societal ills). Imagine if we offer a well-funded education for kids who are most at risk of destructive behavior, not on what we are currently doing, which is funding education for those least at risk. This unwise and unsustainable practice makes our gap in incomes worse, and thus the level of discontent in our society worse. Alas, the walled garden won't last for very long, no matter how much we believe it will.
As Sun Tzu advocates the importance of timing and prevention when problems are easier to manage, if we wait, the problem only gets more difficult. And if we wait longer still, it might be too late. At that point, as mentioned in The Art of War, not even the wisest counsel can stop the terrible consequences that would ensue.
In summary, our public education at present is a grave and heavy matter. It has weight, and that weight is getting heavier than an ounce of prevention with each passing day. Public education is the foundation of a nation comprised of a large population of rational citizens who don't engage in destructive activities and who can handle their everyday problems with aplomb. Therefore, public education minus the public does not equate to proper education for the general populace. We need everyone in the equation for not only our children's sake but also for the sake of our very nation and society.
UPDATE April 8, 2018: I mentioned rote learning and knowledge in this blog. Here's something I came across today: http://www.news.ucsb.edu/2018/018878/innovation-nation