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The Haunting of 26th

Numbers haunt me. They always have. They take up real estate in my head and they burn synaptic pathways that never falter or weaken with age.

I can tell you that in 1976 I hit .427 for Norwood Sorrentos Baseball Club and that I didn’t commit a single error that season in center field. That same season Bob Crable, the former Notre Dame All-America and New York Jet stand out, embedded the number 500 in my head. At the time, Crable was playing for the Midland Cardinals baseball team in Cincinnati. He hit a ball so hard that by the time I chased it down and picked it up he was crossing home plate. The field we were playing on didn’t have a home-run fence. Crable didn’t need one. That ball 26thtraveled at least 500 feet before hitting a tree and coming to rest. It was too far to throw it back to the infield so I threw it to the kid in left field. As a number, I have nothing against 500. As a memory, 500 tastes like bile.

I learned some new numbers a few nights ago that are destined to haunt me in the future and that will assuredly stain my generation. They are numbers we own. We are to blame and history will not look kindly upon us for them.

My daughter has just begun high school and a few nights ago I went to school to spend time in each of her classes, to meet the teachers, to see what her day is like, and to explore the programs available to her.

Chaparral High School is an excellent school. Twice in the last decade it has been named one of the top high schools in the country. The school can boast that over 80 percent of its graduates go on to some form of college, of an excellent AP (Advanced Placement) program and a vibrant arts department. The teachers I have met make me feel good. My daughter is lucky that we live in an area that is fairly well off.

But something is terribly amiss. In each class we heard this same refrain: “Look around. There are 36 desks in this room and each one is filled during your child’s class.”

In science class we were informed that classes and labs were overflowing with students because the department has lost 5 teachers in the past year. This in a school where the number of students is increasing, not decreasing.

Photography class, part of the art department, still has a darkroom that students work and learn in, but the computers are a modern handicap. They are old, lack memory, and frequently crash when editing photos or working with larger files.

The classroom for geometry was smaller than the science classroom but filled with the same number of students, as was Honors History. In Honors History, however, it was explained to us why our kid’s reading material is all online.

“We only have a few textbooks and can’t afford to buy more. So, if your child doesn’t have a computer or access to the internet – and we know that some don’t – we will have to work something out.”

Above the whiteboard at the front of the class was a large sign. It simply said: “Budget Cuts.”

Not once did any teacher make a political statement regarding the cuts to our schools, or to the additional burden the extra students in each class added. But the statement seemed loud and clear to me. Teachers today aren’t allowed to be “political”. They have to tow the line and make do. Through all of this the parents remained quiet, never questioning why, never voicing an opinion, even in the halls between classes. There was an odd quiet that sometimes accompanies tragedy. No one wants to speak of it. No one wants to face the horror in front of them.

In the 1980s Ronald Reagan and some of the more conservative members of his party began repeating the mantra: “our schools are broken”. This wasn’t true. At the time Reagan and the others began repeating this lie the United States was ranked number one in the world for education. By all measures, our schools were a roaring success. Sure, other countries were catching up to us, but we were still first. Of course there were bad schools and bad teachers, especially in the inner-city school systems. But they were the exception.

What was really happening is that the world around us was changing. Other countries were investing heavily into educating their youth as the information age was ascending. Our problem was that our curriculum didn’t address the coming changes in the economic, business and social environments. We weren’t teaching our children to be competitive in the new world. To his credit, Reagan, following Carter’s lead, put a great deal more money into our educational budget (he also tried to make prayer mandatory, in complete violation of the constitution!). Still, our schools lost ground. Then George W. Bush came into office and instituted standardised testing.  Unfortunately, standardized testing throughout a student’s high school career hasn't had a positive impact on performance. Worse still, standardized tests – and forcing schools to teach to them – have done nothing to help prepare high schoolers to succeed in the workforce.

What is needed is a complete re-thinking of what we are educating our children to do. Are we training them to be competitive in today’s world straight out of high school? Belgium is doing this quite well. They have risen quickly and have eclipsed us in educational performance. Their focus is on teaching basic skills early and then allowing students to chose more career oriented, job oriented paths later. Standardized testing as practiced in the U.S. prevents this approach.

For thirty years we have been attacking educators and our educational system. Recently, we’ve slashed funding and enacted some of the most idiotic requirements (No Child Left Behind) in our country’s history. Today, we stand with our drooping stars and stripes in the very middle of the international hierarchy for education. We are mediocre. But fear not. In the coming years with our massive tax cuts to corporations and the uber-wealthy and the scarcity of funding at a local level our schools will be solidly placed at the bottom of the barrel.

We put a lot of money into education. However, we are nowhere near the top in spending, especially in primary and secondary education. We rank in the middle for spending per child, something we should take note of when assessing the relative success or failure of our schools.

It’s really quite simple. If we continue to lower taxes and de-emphasize education (and emphasize testing) there is no chance we can regain any of our past educational glory. There is no chance our children - en-masse - will be able to compete. Which means as a country we won’t be able to compete. Of course, the wealthy will educate their children. They can afford private schooling. But this country was not built on a small ruling few. It was our middle class that created an empire. It is a thriving middle class that makes a country’s worldwide wealth and influence possible. We won’t have a middle class. The chinese, however, will. Over the next several decades the chinese middle class, and their wealth and influence as a country, will swell and prosper.

To succeed, to keep our place as the leader in world affairs, we need teachers, resources (money), and commitment to focus on things other than creating a generation of burger-flipping servers. (What else can you do with a high school education in this country?) Otherwise, we become the largest nation on earth that is ruled by consumerism and supports two classes of people: those who have all and those who service them.

These decisions to coddle the rich and ignore the world around us will haunt us. And these numbers will haunt us. Today, on the international scene, we are ranked 14th in reading ability. In science we are 17th. Those are the good numbers. In math we are a woeful 25th. As if that isn’t bad enough, we are third from the bottom in the percentage of 15 year olds that are actually in school. Thank goodness for Mexico and Turkey. They prevent us from being international laggards and delinquents. Many will discount that number and say that a large percentage of those not in school are hispanic immigrants. But the reason they are not is school is that they must work. Their parents can’t earn enough to take care of the family so they must find jobs and forego a high school education. That makes us losers, not them.

There are two numbers that will haunt us more than others. These are the numbers that will define our generation and our stewardship of the american dream. We are at the bottom – the very bottom – for high school graduation rates. No child left behind, anyone?

And our children are 26th in the world at problem solving. This number should scare all of us. We live as consumers of 15 second blurbs from the television. Who Kim Kardashian is dating is more important than the amount of money we have wasted in Iraq and Afghanistan, more important than the lives that have been wasted in the same wars, and it’s more important than holding accountable those who have authorized and practiced torture in our names. To solve the issues of meaningless wars, their costs, and the heinous nature and illegality of torture you must engage in honest and meaningful conversation. You must solve problems, which requires a basic understanding of what the problems are.

We like, as a people, to wrap ourselves in the flag and talk about the constitution, but few of us have actually read it or understand it. And today, because of the lack of funding, we don’t really teach it, or any form of civics. We can’t tell you the process of government, only that “the problem IS the government”, without understanding that statement.

Thirty years from now these are numbers that will still be with me, that will haunt me. Thirty years from now I will say, “I am haunted by the number 26.” But this will be nothing to reminisce about. This will be a stain upon my generation – upon me – that cannot be escaped. We own these numbers.

Some Links

US Drops in Education
US Rankings in education
Education at risk
The crumbling foundation of U.S. education

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