I was born and raised in Washington, DC before the miracle of air-conditioning. I know well that July is a beast in that city.
Yet I will return to Washington, DC on July 30 to participate in the Save Our Schools march and rally. Why? Because I don’t want to lose something that defined my childhood: a great public school education.
At the center of our democracy sits a cherished institution that we invented here in the United States. Countries across the world have copied our principle of education for all. That makes sense because a nation’s worth lies in its people. We invest in our nation by investing in our citizens, and we start with the children.
My school mixed serious academic work with breaks for both free and structured play. We celebrated at regular intervals throughout the year and benefited richly from the museums and theaters in the nation’s capital.
The school was embedded in my working-class neighborhood. There I sat next to the children of Eastern European refugees who had escaped from World War II. I learned about cultures I would have never known had I not been hearing and learning beside all these different voices. Of course, I didn’t know what gift I was being given at the time. This was just the way it was. These “different” people were my friends, and so they were never really different at all.
Public schools open their arms to the “poor and huddled masses.” Bringing all Americans together in the common school has made America innovative, creative, and unique.
My entire education, from kindergarten through graduate school, occurred in public schools. Though I had other options for my own children, I believed then, as I do now, in the importance of schooling America’s children together.
All three of my children obtained excellent educations in Virginia’s public schools, right on through the university system. They’re giving back to their communities in substantive ways because of the investment their community made in them.
But now, America’s system of schooling, one that has produced innovation, new ideas, and new ways of entertaining and communicating with others, is threatened.
After 10 years of high-stakes testing, the students I now teach are often what I would describe as “tolerantly polite.” Those who haven’t dropped out by the eleventh grade, often because they have disengaged from schooling long before, are fully aware of the importance of the tests which now cloud the classroom atmosphere as thickly as Washington’s humidity in August.
As the great communications theorist Marshall McLuhan is best known for saying, “the medium is the message.” Well, the kids have gotten the message: the test is all that matters. The intrinsic rewards of discovery, creativity, spontaneous celebration, and the feeling of satisfaction that comes after working through something hard — all key aspects of a strong education — are getting short shrift.
How this has perverted the teacher-student relationship is the biggest problem at our public schools today. Sadly, the Obama administration’s “Race to the Top” program is only putting more emphasis on testing, testing, and testing.
There are other threats. We divide our students into groups that may never interact with each other, often under the guise of “school choice.” We endorse solving complicated problems by insisting on standardization rather than individualization.
Money spent on testing is money not spent on infrastructure, including functioning, friendly places to come together. It’s also money not spent paying well-trained teachers. Our promise to our children must include access to safe, engaging places to learn — for everyone.
I will be marching for all these reasons and more. Above all, my eldest grandchild will attend kindergarten next year. I want my grandchildren to love school, to love kids of all colors and ethnic stripes, and to love America the way I loved my childhood.
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