School cuts and our collective future
The future belongs to the educated
These comments are prompted by the article in the Oct. 11 issue of the Index-Tribune about plans for cuts to the school budget and by my recent experiences as a volunteer at Sonoma Valley High School as part of the Teacher Support Network.
The larger context for my comments relates to my 37-year career as a faculty member in graduate and professional departments in three of the most competitive universities in the U.S., which has provided me with substantial insights into what success in its broadest sense (think life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness) will mean for today’s public school students.??First, some comments about what I have observed at the high schoolthat have a direct impact on the quality of education.
I am appalled at the disrespect shown by a large fraction of students toward their teachers, who are trying to teach, and toward fellow students who are trying to learn. For some of these students, this lack of respect is coupled with a level of apathy that is chilling. These students not only cheat themselves, but they create an atmosphere in which teaching and learning can hardly flourish.
Second, the size of one of the three classes in which I volunteer is so large that I do not see how the teacher can possibly provide the level of attention that many of the students in the class really need – based on my observations of their work.
Overall, the quality of the student work that I have seen is frighteningly inadequate.
What do these observations have to do with cuts to school budgets??
(1) Every dollar possible must go to educational programs, teacher support and class size reductions. This means that support for things like intermural athletic programs must be funded outside of school budgets. Note that many of the best colleges and universities in this country had very limited, or no, intermural athletic programs – MIT, Cal Tech, UC, San Diego, Johns Hopkins. Recently, UC Berkeley planned to end its storied baseball program unless substantial outside funding could be found to support it.
(2) This also means that, before direct education activities are cut, the administration of the SVUSD must prove to the public that it has reduced administrative positions to the barest minimum needed to run the district – think absolutely no administrative fat.?
(3) When cuts have to be made, we need first to protect programs that challenge the brightest and most motivated students, and provide help to those students with real educational need for whatever reason. Next we have to protect the number of school days and teacher support (co-equal in my view). After that, very tough decisions have to be made – decisions that have the least impact on the education mission.?
What can we as a community do to help support our schools and provide the highest quality education??
(1) We must provide vigorous support for a school policy that has zero tolerance for disrespectful students and students who disrupt the learning environment. If these students do not want to learn, they should be put in separate classrooms until they see fit to behave in a responsible and respectful manner that enriches school. What should be done in these classrooms would have to be decided by the district and parents. What good are test scores, if students really aren’t learning anything that will be meaningful for their future?
(2) We need to support new bond issues or other revenue-raising programs to provide more stable funding for the schools at a much higher level than exists currently. All adult citizens, including the elderly (I am 68), owe it to our children, our community and our nation to invest in the education that our current and future society absolutely requires to thrive.?
(3) Parents from all social and economic strata need to make the maximal possible investment in assuring that their children take school seriously. Is this difficult, given two working parents, more than one child and a youth culture that is more interested in your face and your body than your mind? You bet! But without this input we cannot expect our schools to deliver what teachers, administrators and parents want in terms of educational quality and opportunity.?
(4) Local businesses, government and professional groups need to provide more real world opportunities that give context to students so that they can understand why what they are being taught really is important for their future – proficient reading, math skills, critical thinking skills for making decisions in complex work/professional environments, knowledge of how our political and governmental structures function, and deep understanding of the scientific method to be able to interpret the rapid advances in technology and problems affecting our world – climate change, air pollution, effects of malnutrition, malfunctioning federal government and the need for an informed citizenry.??
The challenges we and our school district face are daunting, and they will not go away anytime soon. However, if we, as free and responsible citizens, do not give of ourselves and some of our treasure, we fail our children and should be ashamed of ourselves – there are no excuses! The future belongs to the educated.??
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Ira Tager is a 26-year Sonoma resident who is currently a professor in the Graduate School at UCBerkeley.