The Poky Little Pundit


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“We have a civic obligation to support free public education for all.” – Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch bookAfter four days with no voice and a night spent coughing so hard that tears flew spontaneously from my eyes, I am taking a day off. And right now, it is sunny, and so the world is good. I am staring in utter awe at the hot butter sunshine, knowing that in just minutes, it will pull on its hated Autumn-grey sweater.

It has been a month now since my return to teaching – hence the lack of posting. I’d love to report how happy I am to be back – but working 10 hour days for $3000 a month continues to be somewhat of a drag. I can hear some of you thinking, ‘Well, that’s better than minimum wage, isn’t it? She should be grateful!’ And I am grateful to be employed – we all should be – but my myriad degrees (okay, there’s only three) and 12 years of experience balk at my workload relative to my salary.

Luckily, I am not the only one feeling fired up about education: Last Thursday, I went to hear Diane Ravitch speak at UW about her new book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. She is a tiny, fiery woman whose commanding rhetoric boomed through Kane Hall. She mentioned many ‘hoaxes’ that our media propagates – one being that American education is failing. She quickly proves how untrue this is with actual evidence – for example, high school graduation rates are at their highest point in history. Several other tidbits popped out at me (oh and by the way, these are called titbits in England, which cracks me up):

  • Test scores measure “who is in the class” – and no amount of merit pay is going to increase these test scores if all other variables stay the same
  • Teachers are not, in fact, “hiding their best lessons” in a bid to earn more money
  • America leads the world in industrialized poverty – which is the probable cause of most of our education woes
  • Standardized tests reflect opportunity – not the ability to learn
  • “Charter schools are skimming off the easiest to educate.” Totally!
  • Providing better pre-natal and early childhood care are critical in fixing our public school system
  • Reducing class size has proven benefits (And here, I want to segue briefly to state that one of my current AP Literature classes has 34 souls. In England, the equivalent class had EIGHT.)

It was lovely to walk through my former campus again, and sit back and learn for a change instead of grading papers and being ever the arbiter. Ravitch was an excellent speaker and is an excellent educator – I encourage you to read her book. Read Jonathan Kozol’s review for the NYT here.

In terms of politics – no, I have nothing to say about the shutdown that hasn’t already been said in eight different ways since last night. I’d like to focus instead on some of the amazing local candidates relying on our support this November. It turns out that part of being a Precinct Committee Officer for the 36th District Democrats involves receiving phone calls on my cell from candidates – I have voice messages from both school board candidate Suzanne Dale Estey and Port Commissioner John Creighton! I’d love to endorse them here, but I am still in the evidence-gathering phase of my voting process – I hope you are too. More on this is still to come as I learn about the candidates.

Now for a hot bath, some soup and some Vick’s VapoRub…stay healthy, dear reader!

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Sharing the wealth

kid at desk

I’ve decided that my tipping point is one month. After one month of living out of a suitcase, travel officially becomes boring and my Seattle montage starts playing in my head: A run along Queen Anne’s hilltop, an Americano with half and half at Cafe Fiore, and a simple, homemade green salad while sitting out on my back deck in the sun. Yes.

I’m also really looking forward to new topics of conversation. How to get your child (or grandchild, or niece) into a ‘decent’ school consumes the thoughts of everyone in London. I am not being hyperbolic. The disparity between schools is terrifying. Many of our close friends, who happen to be atheists, attend church every Sunday, espousing a fervent belief in God, simply to get into the local (C of E or Catholic) school – and not just the year before the child is due to enter Reception (our Kindergarten). We are talking THREE YEARS of church attendance to get your kid into a state-run school.

Other friends and family members are lucky enough to be able to afford private school, but it doesn’t end with money. For my own son to attend the school his father attended, he would have had to take AN EXAM at age three to get into Reception, and another at 7 to secure a place in the junior school and another at age 11 to secure a place in the senior school – all for the bargain price of £12,000 a year.

Truly, it is a tragedy for parents here, which is why they must verbally process it at every social occasion. You can see the dilemma etched into the worry lines on their faces. Do you save and scrimp for private school, only for your child to become a toffee-nosed arse, or tossed out for poor exam results at age 11? Or do you attend church for three years to get into the free school, regardless of whether or not you believe? The alternative is too hideous to contemplate: sending your child to a failing school in a bad area where they are certain to receive a terrible education and probably end up robbing grannies after school. Of course, working class, poor people have no option at all, but it isn’t really cool to mention that.

It is tempting to feel rather smug on my way home today – George is certain to get into his local school, which is 400 meters away. If he doesn’t, there are two others in our neighborhood that are equally well-respected. That’s it. End of story. Our only complaint is that there is not a lot of green space. At our free, amazing school down the road.

But inequities in education obviously exist in America as well. Just six miles away, in the same county we pay our taxes in, school choices are starkly different to my own.  And I wish I could just carry on with my life, appreciating the amazing fortune afforded me by my parents and my own hard work. The fact that so many of us are able to ignore the inequities is perhaps the reason why they continue. But what do we do?

For a start, I think we should mimic Portland, OR (minus the organic hippie beard thing). They decided last year to pool one-third of all PTA contributions and re-distribute the money to failing schools. And since schools such as Coe Elementary (where George will go) raise almost $200,000 a year in parent contributions and schools down the road raise virtually none, this seems a place to start. I would love to give to my child’s school knowing it might also benefit other children whose parents are less able to support their local school. (This is disregarding the fact that WA state schools are hideously underfunded to the point of a Supreme Court order – that is a whole separate issue. Truly, parents should just stop topping up funding for schools so the government will cover the bill as it should, but as a representative parent, I am certainly not willing to prove a point with my child’s life prospects.)

I’ve been reading Diane Ravitch’s blog as well as Save Seattle Schools, a community forum. Both offer perspectives on the issue, but few real solutions. Can anyone offer other reading suggestions?

Next Tuesday, I will be en route to my fourth continent in the span of four weeks: Australia. I will be visiting two friends – one in Melbourne and one in Perth. Ah, the benefits of a year off teaching – cheap travel during term time!