The documentary “Waiting for Superman” has ignited a spirited debate about what we–as a nation, as state governments and as stewards of local public school systems–should be doing to address the acknowledged shortcomings of public education in the U.S. The film focuses on governance, teacher quality and charter schools, topics which don’t lend themselves to 600-word columns. But, the basic data used to document the problem is worth thinking about.
The U.S. spends more per student than other countries, but the best available objective comparisons of student achievement rank the United States around 20th. Of course, there are lots of explanations-we are more diverse, we “mainstream” student with disabilities and non-English speakers…blah, blah, blah. One measure really caught my attention, though: comparing the top 5% of students by country in math and science, the U.S. ranks 23rd.
Increasingly, national education leaders such as Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education, are urging longer school days and longer school years as an important driver for improved performance. At 180 days, the average school year in the U.S. ranks 16th internationally.
We know without a doubt that all children can learn given enough time and quality instruction. We know that non-native English speakers (ESOL) need extra time in the classroom to earn the credits Virginia requires for high school graduation. We know that students with disabilities often need extra time, as well. As a matter of fact, the U.S. Department of Education recently required Virginia to change its proposed “Graduation Completion Index”-a key measure required by No Child Left Behind-which, as originally proposed, would have penalized high schools with a significant number of students who need more time to learn.
Sadly, allowing enough time for all students to learn has become a budget issue in Virginia. Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) has cut summer school and eliminated year-round elementary school calendars-both of which benefit at-risk students by giving them “enough time to learn.” Our poorer, more diverse neighborhoods felt the loss this past summer.
Which brings me to the real topic of this column. Graham Road Elementary School-an award-winning school whose student body is overwhelming poor and with many ESOL students-just lost its year round calendar due to budget cuts. Graham Road students were on their own this summer with no educational support. Recognizing the extreme need, Knox Presbyterian Church and the local community pulled together a bare bones summer “camp.” The ingenious & inexpensive curriculum theme was “get to know your community.” Policemen, fire-fighters and local elected officials were among those invited to make presentations to the children.
I was invited to speak about the role of Delegate in state government and about local government as well. I planned an active experience in democracy and enlisted State Senator Chap Petersen and Providence District School Board Member Patty Reed as participants. We divided the 30+ children into three districts and held elections for School Board. Each District nominated candidates, who gave persuasive speeches and made many promises. A School Board was elected, a Chairman selected and a Superintendent hired.
Finally, the Board had to make an important decision. Due to budget cuts only one drink could be served in the cafeteria-either milk or soda. Much debated ensued, with lots of public input. The final vote was unanimous-the decision was to serve soda. Why soda? The children told me that soda is cheaper than milk and does not require refrigerated storage. They expected big savings would result and they all wanted the savings to go directly to the classroom. They voted for soda so they could afford to pay their teachers. These children knew what they needed and voted to keep the school doors open.
We adults who make the educational decisions in these lean budget times should listen to the children and make trade-offs that allow more time to learn, more time to succeed.
Delegate Kory represents the 38th District in the Virginia House of Delegates. She may be emailed at [email protected].