How Obama can fix Public Education

Sadly, many officials will pull the same stunts they do every time there is a real or imagined budget boogey man. Fine arts, physical education, world languages, along with teachers’ salaries and class sizes will all suffer.

President-Elect Obama, you want to improve the schools? Start with encouraging states to slash the technology budget.

By Debra Cole

I know what you’re thinking by the sub-title. Apparently this writer is in a nursing home, gumming applesauce while surfing between the DNA results of “Who my baby Daddy” on Maury Povich, and reruns of the Golden Girls. Or, the writer has pledged allegiance to a paranoid anti-computer commune in Idaho that has a 15:1 semi-automatic weapon ratio. And its mullet sporting members have extreme Halitosis because they believe the makers of tooth paste have ties with the Urban Housing and Development Federal agency. They think said agency is actually a group of scientists and computer programmers constructing Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie as cloned robots to seduce humans and genetically eliminate “undesirable” traits like empathy, individualism, and acne.

Neither over-imaginative scenario is the case. I’m a 30ish Gen Xer with excellent oral hygiene. My Mac book Pro, Ipod, and access to any Saturday Night Live skit, whether it’s Dana Carvy or Tina Fey, on YouTube are as vital as air and decalf iced mochas. I loudly sing the praises of technology, and not just in entertainment. Medicine, science, conservation, and even Presidential elections benefit.
Obama’s use of the Internet played a significant role in defeating Hillary Clinton and John McCain, not only because of the amount of money he raised. But the visual images of Obama’s blackberry addiction compared to John McCain’s disdain for e-mail reinforced the message of change.

So what’s my problem with technology? You may ask, don’t you want our young people to receive the best education, compete globally, and most importantly not live in their parents’ basement at 30? Ok, yes, yes, and yes, but excessive or rather obsessive spending on technology has virtually nothing to do with academic achievement. I bring this topic to your attention because our economy is marching in a recession parade longer than the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day festivity. School systems across the country will be looking for ways to save money.
Sadly, many officials will pull the same stunts they do every time there is a real or imagined budget boogey man. Fine arts, physical education, world languages, along with teachers’ salaries and class sizes will all suffer. You can show thousands of spreadsheets and doctoral dissertations to support the argument that these courses are as vital as the basics. Local artists and even celebrities can give impassioned speeches patterned after Mr. Holland’s Opus bringing everyone at the town meeting to tears. But unfortunately, bureaucrats not intellectuals run our schools. Looking for creative cost control ideas at a school board meeting is about as easy as trying to find some feminism at a rapper’s house.

I’m not advocating that our schools should model the Amish community because of Wall Street’s woes. However, even in eras of prosperity, technology shouldn’t receive such big piece of the pie. And the reason for this imbalance is because Americans love trends. We love the bandwagon, especially when there’s an opportunity to label something the “Messiah” to distract from reality. We also love window dressing.
A brand new computer lab looks like innovation. However, we’ve all seen movies with beautiful images and fantastic graphics based on shallow scripts, implausible characters, and stupid dialogue.

I remember during the Clinton administration, Al Gore told the public that every school should have the Internet and all the trimmings. He emphasized that the Internet allowed a child to read any essay or work of literature on-line. But no one is going to read Shakespeare’s Macbeth on-line if he or she won’t read it in a book. It’s similar to a situation where my friend “Brad” asked me about buying his lazy overweight daughter a fancy indoor exercise bike. I told him if she’s unwilling to walk to the mailbox, it’s a waste of money.

Besides, the reason I even want to go to Wikepedia is because of my 10th grade world history teacher. She made history exciting despite the lack of sex appeal in her lessons. We read, listened to lectures, discussed, and occasionally watched films. For a class presentation, we didn’t have power point to make it pretty. We spent our time on the content. And if you don’t believe that public speaking without a gadget still has merit. You should visit a comedy club.

And so over the past 10 years, federal grants and corporate donations have spent millions on technology. Everyone can find articles on the HIV virus or the Civil War in a split second. But education isn’t any better. Nationwide, graduation rates are roughly 70%, and for African Americans and Hispanics, it’s about 50%. Furthermore, teacher attrition rates are embarrassing. About one-third of teachers leave within 3 years. And the morale in a lot of schools will drive even the most stable and dedicated educator to Lexipro or Prozac before their fifth year anniversary. It’s the Human Resource departments that need to be struck by the lightning rod of innovation, not technology.

In 1989, I visited Anne Frank’s home in Amsterdam. I was on a European tour with my youth choir. I bought a copy of her diary there that still rests on my bookshelf. I looked through it recently and wondered how many computers, keyboards, programs, software, discs, chords, and monitors have been thrown into landfills since my trip to the Netherlands? In essence books last longer. Computers and accessories have a shelf life of 5 years at the most. It’s utterly ridiculous that schools will bend over backwards for computers, but won’t have money for musical instruments, art supplies, after-school programs, or classes in Mandarin Chinese. There are funds to buy simulations of experiments, but not to build a real greenhouse. We can’t buy sports equipment for kids want something besides basketball, despite the fact that 30 percent have the fattest asses of any generation in American history. We want laptops for all but won’t provide a decent nutritious lunch, or adequate mental health services for troubled children particularly in poverty stricken districts.

Furthermore, the technology that a pre-K child will learn will be obsolete by the time he or she enters college. So the argument of technology today for the sake of future employment is hogwash. The focus should be rigorous academics, creativity, and discipline. Most employers want people who can act right, read, solve problems, and stick to things despite adversity. To illustrate my point, I recently bought Final Cut Pro software for film editing. When UPS delivered it, I knew absolutely nothing. I have slowly learned to edit through books and on-line instruction. However the tenacity to tackle it each day was learned through classical music training, not a computer course.
In college, it was not unusual to practice 3 hours a day on a Bach Sonata for an upcoming recital. When I began music lessons, my family didn’t allow me to cop out on commitments to concerts and practices.
My inspiring music teachers knew their craft, but most importantly, they wanted to be there and had support to do the job.

During these troubled times, school board members should ask a lot of questions to find the black holes sucking up the dollars so that programs don’t suffer unnecessarily, and children miss out on opportunities. Every household has a black hole effect, whether it’s money spent on cigarettes or late fees. Seriously, do students who live within 3 miles of a school really need bus service? They can walk, especially if they live in a southern state with very mild winters. Is it necessary to have all those “directors” up at central office? How about a few dollars spent on making schools better organized and more positive, to keep teachers, rather than waste millions to fill vacancies from resignations that could have been avoided? With the right leader and willingness, we could also feed youngsters better while turning a profit at lunchtime.

I believe that with literacy, confidence building experiences, stability, a healthy environment, and emotional support, the average person can accomplish most anything he or she desires. And technology is one tool we can use to help youngsters reach their potential. I’m not boycotting computers, I’m simply asking for fairness. Technology shouldn’t sit at the big table while everyone else has to sit with the children and weird family members out in the garage.

Debra Cole is a self-professed ‘lefty’ who calls it like she sees it. She was a public school teacher in Georgia for 9 years. Currently, she performs regularly in Atlanta area comedy clubs. She’s known for her sophisticated and smart humor that’s delivered with a seemingly sweet and yet surprising sarcastic Southern Georgia twang. E-mail her at:
deblaughs@gmail.com.

4 thoughts on “How Obama can fix Public Education”

  1. I remember when I was growing up and going through school (mid 90’s) there was a sudden jump to technology centering on the fact that Eastern education was better than Western education. New computers flooded my elementary school. Our community was fairly wealthy and our area schools consistently received high marks overall. However we still fall “behind” the world and other U.S. in education. Its because schools don’t focus on the basics early. I guarantee you I never learned anything on those computers however because of my family my mother taught me real life skills- good manners, proper social behavior, knowing right from wrong, basic verbal/number skills and even foreign languages. Today half the children I grew up with are adults and deep into drugs, committing crimes or dropping out of high school and/or college. I assure you they know everything about computers and technology- however they lack basic skills such as a world view and proper social behaviors. This is what Eastern countries teach that we do not.
    In short I agree- cut out all the computers and cell phones. There is no reason why kindergartners should be learning the colors on a 20″ MAC screen when they can learn them in real life. What about skills that lead children to be good people and use their intuition when problem solving?

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  2. You know, as much as some of it galls me in context, it’s simply nitpicking, and I have to wholeheartedly agree. Given a technological learning curve that transcends exponential, to buy a new computer every three years at the cost of rapidly shrinking arts departments (a product of our disdain for subtle emotions) and practically disappearing physical education departments (a product of the “feel good generation” valuing self-esteem over self-improvement) is laughable, to say the least, and downright neglectful, with full honesty.

    Even programs heavily relying on technology would be completely unharmed by renewing hardware only when it dramatically impacted the student’s ability to learn. I went through the modern school system. I know the reality of it. The newest computer never made my documents load more than a fraction of a second faster, and given the time I was spending on many of them, I’d say this was no big deal. As for being “up to date” on computer functions, well… you don’t see the hotkey combination for switching the window in front change too often.

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  3. To News: Unfortunately, I’d say that “intuition” as a problem solving mechanism is all too prevalent in the modern world as is. The multitude of parents telling them that “The wrong answer is okay as long as it’s the right thing for YOU,” push children into an intense egocentrism that stands at the root of many of society’s ills. My father always impressed in me the value of researching the answer, of asking questions, of looking, of seeking, of finding, rather than simply speaking “from the heart.” The heart is easy. It’s malleable, it’s infallible, and its comfortable. The head, though, that’s hard. I challenge you to find any of those “problem kids” who can give you a good, intellectually grounded reason for their actions.
    Because even if you do, I can already hand you hundreds who were just acting on a hunch.

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  4. I am in complete agreement with Debra. Technology is too often treated as a Panacea where funding priorities are concerned. The best teachers always have the ability to connect with students based on the creativity of relaying subject matter without the need for high-tech bells and whistles. I too have had memorable experiences in classrooms whereby I was able to absorb more knowledge through simplistic teaching methods.

    Something new and dramatic needs to occur in order to change the educational culture, particularly in the inner cities. Schools cannot seem to retain the best teachers and the best teachers who remain behind to teach struggle to reach students more than ever. Catching up to Europe in the class room will take a Herculean effort.

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