I have survived a school closure. It was one of the most heart rending experiences I have ever had. For me it was tragic on many levels not the least of which was that my eldest daughter had worked with one of my classes some years previous to produce a magnificent mural on the wall outside the library. I saw that mural every day and I always marveled at the effort it represented. But many of us had devoted significant portions of our lives and our careers into that school. I had been there ten years and I was still a relative newcomer. It was a good school, we did not fail; the district closed it because at less than 300 students, we were small enough to be absorbed by another site just a mile away. The district would save the cost of running the facility, they could move some of the teachers to positions elsewhere and, of course, some would retire.
My experience was overshadowed by one of our students who had come from another school that had previously closed. When it was announced that the new one that he had come to was also closing he turned to his dad, our school custodian, and asked him, “How come every school I go to, closes?”
Early the other morning I happened to drive by the school he went to next. It is one of the eleven we’re closing in Tucson Unified School District next year. Fortunately he has moved on but I can only imagine his feelings on seeing that a third school he attended is shutting down.
There were cars and trucks parked all over as workmen swarmed the campus covering all the windows with plywood. It makes sense I guess, though I thought to myself, “How long before you can’t see the plywood for the tagging?” I suppose that’s better than broken windows but having gone through a school closure I felt a pang of remorse that this is the best we can do for our children.
It seems like a failure on our part. Not as teachers but as a society.
This time of year teachers are catching their breath; they are on the verge of feeling good about themselves again and preparing to rejoin a relatively normal lifestyle that most of us, who don’t teach for a living, take for granted.
Some are second guessing themselves about the year just ended, because the one coming is so fraught with unknowns. A few are concerned because they hope they did the right thing in holding a child back from advancement to the next grade. In my career I held back four kids and I worried all summer about each one.
For the record, I batted .500, two were successful, two were not. In retrospect those latter two would have been better served by referrals to resource education services. Often, as a teacher you make your best judgement. But even at that I never thought of it as a failure on the child’s part.
How can a child fail at something? By definition a child is still learning how to do things so, intrinsically contained in this concept should be the opportunity to be wrong or to not succeed. That is how much of our learning occurs, we learn by our mistakes, this is patently obvious.
But as adults, we fail all the time. Thousands have failed in their professions and are looking for work. An unprecedented number have failed as home owners and are walking away from their homes. And right now we are failing our children.
And I don’t think we are learning from our mistakes.
We’re closing schools at an alarming rate, witness Chicago.1) Their school board has voted to close 50 schools. Their stated reasons for the closures are the same as we have heard in Tucson: declining enrollment and inadequate funding has forced the board to look critically at their model and scale back on the number of facilities they offer to the public.
Many in Chicago argue that there is another agenda: that the schools that are closing are racially or socially identified and that the children of the poor are the ones a who are bearing the brunt of the crisis in public education.
Dennis Van Roekel President of the National Education Association writes:
“Our children deserve more. The whole purpose of public education in America is to level the playing field and provide opportunities to all children, regardless of their background. As educators, we ask ourselves: “What is best for our students?” We all know the right answer — it’s literally right in front of us. All children deserve high performing public schools in their own neighborhood” 2)
Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach is an associate professor in the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University and she offers:
One way to increase the likelihood of actually improving student academic outcomes would be to use some of the resources saved by consolidating schools to reduce class size or implement other proven methods to improve instruction. 3)
She goes on to conclude:
In the wake of the disastrous budgetary environment that has forced the closing of dozens of Chicago schools, the children need us to move forward with hope and commitment.
That is easy to say but in that wake of continuing cuts to public education, much potential for growth is lost. Some like Van Roekel will decry the social impact, others who write about education like David Safier see it as a political issue that continues despite the public outcry to stop it. 4) There are those who say it is simply economically driven, but it really doesn’t matter to me why we are doing it; the problem is that we continue to close schools and I think that is the wrong solution.
In “Democracy in Education” one of the foremost philosophers in the nation, Noam Chomsky said:
Right now, we happen to be in a general period of regression, not just in education. A lot of what’s happening is sort of backlash to the 60s; the 60s were a democratizing period. And the society became a lot more civilized and there was a lot of concern about education across the spectrum – liberals, conservatives and bipartisan. 5)
We should be concerned. Education is becoming less democratic. The way out of a regression both budgetary and educationally is through more education, not less. When I was adjunct faculty at a community college the director of the community education outreach, used to say, “Recessions are good for the business of education, more people want to go back to school to learn how to do something else.” People naturally want to better themselves. But in order for that to ring true the programs must exist to support that opportunity.
Chomsky goes on:
And now it’s institutionalized with No Child Left Behind/Race to the Top; teach to the test – worst possible way of teaching. But it is a disciplinary technique. Schools are designed to teach the test. You don’t have to worry about students thinking for themselves, challenging, raising questions.
I’m not saying that we should keep all schools open no matter how many students attend but I do think that if we were committed to the process of education we would be looking at this recession as an opportunity to do our jobs better. Any teacher can tell you that lower class size is a plus. We could increase student funding, improve the quality of the education and offer to train our teachers in the best practices available rather just saying, “Sorry but you’re going to have to do more with less again this year.” Too often the only thing driving critical decisions is money but those decisions have ramifications and potentially serious consequences for generations to come.
I have three daughters in college. Each is committed to becoming a professional in their field but they are all also concerned with the rising cost of education. They fear that they will graduate into a career burdened with so much debt that it will take them years to recover. It is just another example of how we are mortgaging our future.
One can at least be suspicious that skyrocketing student debt is a device of indoctrination. It’s very hard to imagine that there’s any economic reason for it. Other countries’ education is free, like Mexico’s, and that is a poor country. 5)
The fear I have is that we are unintentionally begetting our own demise as a world leader by offering substandard, limited education that only serves to produce a populace which is easily mislead and fundamentally ignorant. Or we are punitively making education a financial burden to many and less available to all. Now is a time that we should be doing the exact opposite: increasing opportunity, not diminishing it, to the ultimate benefit of us all.