06 November 2012

A Sense of Urgency

Education through osmosis. 
Today I want to write about urgency.  Not about the pending election results (though heaven knows I'll be glued to the screen all night).  I want to write what I wish, almost more than anything, that my students would understand.

I teach at a charter school.  Those unfamiliar with the education world imagine that charter school is synonymous with a private school and assume I'm either making a huge amount of money (which I'm not) or that we aren't subject to state and federal education mandates (which we are).  I actually had to explain the way charter schools work about eight times to the guy selling my my contract with Verizon so I could get my state employee discount (17%!) a few months ago.

For those of you unaware, a charter school is a publicly funded school beholden to all the same laws and standards given to a normal public school, but without the umbrella of the teacher's unions.  The biggest difference is typically based on the size and style of education.  You'll also see charter schools that focus on particular studies (arts and sciences, usually).  In a large city, getting into a charter school is typically a huge deal - an active decision by parents and students who want to give their child a better chance at escaping the violent, gang ridden over crowding in the schools they are zoned for.  It's a nice alternative to costly private schools.  As seen in documentaries like Waiting for Superman - these families have to submit themselves to the lottery that will determine acceptance.  Charter schools can't pick and choose who comes through application like private schools can.

In Utah, though, charters generally serve a slightly different purpose.  In my experience, families that gravitate towards charter schools here generally do so for one of the following reasons:

1. They believe the public schools are a hive of scum and villainy and would like their child to be in a more conservative environment.

2. Their child is particularly awkward socially and parents hope that a smaller school will create closer bonds of friendships a little more easily.

3. The child is particularly far behind academically, but the parent believes that the public school assessment is incorrect and that the student needs a different kind of learning environment.  (Sometimes these parents also believe that their child is a closet Einstein.)

4. Smaller class sizes.

5. They believe their child has particular gifts in an area that the school specializes (or claims to specialize) in.

Not on this list, as far as I can tell in my interaction with parents or students is the belief that charter schools here lead to a better chance of getting an education that will lead to an excellent college.  This isn't to say that these students don't anticipate being college bound, but the primary motivations that I can see generally lean towards being more social than academic, at least in Utah.  (This isn't to say that I don't work with families who are looking for a good education as a motivator - it's just that in Utah it's typically not because they don't believe the public schools will keep them from college.  From what I see, it's usually more the style of teaching or philosophy on education in the school than a desire for escaping inadequate education elsewhere.)

Those who are in the "academic-know" generally respond quite favorably when I tell them I teach at a charter.  They've seen Waiting for Superman or watched other documentaries and imagine that my students are eager educational beavers gobbling up everything I give them.

And you know what?  Some of them are.  Some of them have an incredible sense of urgency about their education.  They work hard for it.  If they're not getting it from me, they'll get it from somewhere.  They'll strive and seek and find and not yield.  And I am proud of them.  And I am honored to be a part of their lives.

But the culture around here is not terribly "panicked" about the future.

I realized this most profoundly at the commencement ceremonies for my school last May.  I watched the graduating class walk across the stage to receive their diplomas as their destinations after high school were read.  Of those graduating, I counted only three students attending schools that require any kind of application where grades and letters of recommendation will matter.  The remaining students are going to small state schools, community colleges, online schools, beauty schools. . . or no where.  Most were going no where.

I recognize that in this time of the world, a college education is not necessary for either success or for education.  There are thousands of educational paths to take that are nontraditional and glorious now.  The world is so much more accessible than it used to be.  I sincerely hope that these students are moving in that direction.

But I fear for them.  I fear for them because they live in an environment where so often, everything is placed in their laps.  Today we had an assembly about our sister school in Africa where students walk ten miles on empty stomachs to go to a school.  Some will spend the night on their desks instead of braving the walk home.  Twenty three of them managed to get accepted to colleges last year.  These students take their college entrance exams in English - their third language.  It's incredible.  How much more should we as leaders of the free world feel a sense of duty to educate and to seek after knowledge in a world where we have the luxury of not walking so far?  Of doing so on a full stomach?  (Or at least partially full.  Thanks a ton, Michelle.)

If I had my druthers, I'd shout from every housetop I could, and in the ear of every politician I could find and tell them that for the love of all that is holy: the solution to invigorating our students is not with more bubble sheets, more standardized tests, and more worksheets.  When was the last time you filled out a worksheet in school that changed your life and excited you?  If students are going to feel a sense of urgency, they need an environment in which they are free to make mistakes and get messy.  Where it's not about finding the one right answer, it's about finding infinite possibilities.  They need a government that isn't so darn concerned about competing with Chinese math students.  So what if China is doing better in math and science?  This is the country that invented the iPod.  And television.  And Google.  And Pixar.  We don't need a small room of people figuring out solutions to education problems: we need an entire nation of people liberated enough to think for themselves.

But you know what?  The world isn't perfect.  And that may never happen.  But that's no excuse.  The world is at our fingertips.  Literally.  Anyone with a smart phone can get a college level education if they are diligent enough.  It's time to stop waiting for politicians to make our education better.  It's time to just be educated.  No excuses.

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