Monday, November 28, 2011

Back to School -- As A Parent (Cleveland Post September 8, 2011)

Everybody who went to school has an opinion about education.

It may go off the radar after graduation. As fast as they can, graduates turn their backs on childhood and look to the start of 'real' life, and a chance to earn some money. Perhaps they journey to far off lands, over to the next county, or just down the road.

They take on more responsibilities, maybe get married and start a family. That leads to worrying about the future, the economy, taxes, and right on up to attention to politics. The day comes when they start listening to the news, and education is right there in the middle of it.

The loudest education news is rarely good. In the last sixty or so years, alarms have been raised about students who can't read, teachers who can't teach, 'new math', social promotion, falling standards, political correctness, revisionist history, violence. Popular wisdom is convinced American education is crumbling and has only to point to the education majors on The Tonight Show's 'Jaywalking' segment to prove its point.

Many find themselves thinking, 'They wouldn't have put up with that mess when I was in school!' Or "They knew better than that where I went to school."

For some of us, this is what's in our heads the day we show up to register our child for kindergarten.

And so, a couple of misspelled words later, a counter-intuitive request for information becomes Evidence: Evidence that Education is Going to Pot in a Picnic Basket.

Well, maybe. Maybe not.

By taking deep breaths and listening more than opining (not an easy thing for me!), I have found a lot to praise in my six years' experience with the teachers and administrators in our school.

The teachers and administrators are professionals. They know their stuff. They work in partnership with parents. They are doing creative, informative and exciting things in the classroom that build a solid foundation for subjects to come.

As someone who hated math, the most exciting things I have seen are in math. Teachers show students a variety of ways to come at a problem in order to solve it. They are challenging the myth that "word" people can not be "math" people. This is a good thing.

Discipline and behavior can be particularly sore points when it comes to children and school. I have seen kindergarten teachers bring their classes from enthusiastic cutting and pasting to silent attentiveness in a count of three. I have seen students come into class, put away their belongings and settle into morning work without a word from the teacher. I have seen students who understand they are there to learn and who do their part maintain an environment that makes learning possible.

I have found that schools in North Carolina have significant local control. While the state sets the curriculum and counties have fundamental policies, there are many things handled differently at each school. As an example, one school may allow homemade cupcakes for birthdays, while the one down the road may require store-bought foods to prevent food-borne illness or allergies. Specific discipline procedures also vary. One size does not fit all.

School officials operate under the huge number of constraints we as a society have placed upon them. Everybody knows this. But knowing doesn't always prepare one for how crazy some requirements can be. They may or may not have anything to do with learning. They are frequently at cross purposes.

Legal requirements govern things from the length of the school day to the quantity of peanut butter on a school-provided PB & J. Fiscal constraints reach their tentacles into issues far beyond the availability of technology in the classroom or the cost of more buses. As Johnston County's Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Ed Croom, said during his Kitchen Table Discussions earlier this year, if Federal law states money must be spent on red pens and only red pens, it can't be used on anything else, even if you don't need red pens.

These obstacles leave lots of room for decisions to look, well, less than brilliant. I still, on occasion, wonder what the world is coming to.

But the fact is that I am quite pleased with the things my children have learned and they ways they have grown through attending Johnston County Schools. That first hand experience and personal satisfaction has to be the foundation of any opinion I hold on education. No matter what they say in the news.

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