A few months ago, I read the book There are no children here. It broke my heart and scared the crap out of me. The book was written 15 years ago, and what's scary is that so many of the issues the book highlights -including the poverty and violence the children are living in alongside a failing education system - haven't improved, and yet these issues aren't on the front page of every newspaper. That any child should have to live in the conditions the book describes or have the education experiences the book highlights is just unacceptable. (I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in issues relating to children and education.)
This being an election year, it's an obvious time for politicians to put forth a real agenda of change, a Manhattan Project-type ambition, and it troubles me that education isn't jockeying for a top spot on someone's policy agenda. Obviously the situation in Iraq, health care and global warming are critical, but how are we going to pay for any of this in the future when we have a crumbling education infrastructure that is churning out uneducated, unskilled people that ultimately will create more financial drains on our economy rather than contributing to it? From the economic perspective, if not from a moral one, these children can either be turned into assets that contribute to our bottom line or become liabilities that detract from it. Unfortunately, it seems that we are increasingly building a system that is doing the latter.
It's rather discouraging when two billionaires pool $60 million dollars in an effort to make education a top policy issue in the presidential campaign, and even that just doesn't seem to have significantly moved the needle. I realize it's one of the most complex policy issues to resolve, and that much of education policy decision making resides at the state level. I realize it isn't an issue that exists in a void and is inter-connected with so many other policy and social issues. And at the same time, we need to do more. It's not just the morally right thing to do to ensure a safe and quality education for every child, it is so obviously the self-interested thing to do. What is going to happen to our country when we continue to fail to educate our children?
I recently read two articles which highlight for me the divide that seems to be growing in the US, where access to a quality education seems to increasingly separate the haves from the have-nots.
The first article was from the LA Times and goes into detail about parents paying admissions consultants $350 an hour to advise them as to how to get their children into $20,000 a year kindergartens. Yes, kindergartens.
The second article was from the SF Chronicle about a seven year old who got a fractured skull after being beat up at school by a 5th grader. This after an attack the previous year led to four lost teeth.
We live in the United States of America. This should simply be unacceptable. Blame can be placed in many different places, but it seems like a basic right for a seven-year-old child to go to school and not be put in that kind of danger. Oh, yes, and also maybe to have the opportunity to actually learn something.
When education is reported on in the media, it seems very clear that there are two very distinct realities - on one side are the tales of the privileged - like the LA kindergarteners or teenagers who take every AP exam, get perfect grades and spend summers volunteering in third world countries so they can apply to every Ivy league school and pray to get in; on the other side are the growing number of children who are getting an inferior education as demonstrated in myriad ways, including the low rankings of US 15 year olds on an internationally administered exam.
I would never deny that every parent has the right (and frankly the obligation) to pursue the best educational opportunity they can for their child. But, at the same time, I think we all need to keep holding and pursuing the goal that all children deserve a quality education. I'm sure the children at the fancy LA kindergartens will receive a fine education, and that's a wonderful thing. But the reality is that the little bubbles that their parents are trying to create for them are finite. The kindergarten they go to may make the world seem like it's just peaches and sunshine as far as the eye can see, but at some point, the real world will encroach, and all of these children are going to be confronted with the harsh reality that we are living in a country with a seriously crumbling infrastructure.
Now seems like a critical time to do something about it.