April 12, 2010

Thoughts on Education, Part Three

Let’s go back and check in again with my grandfather, RWD, and his presentation to the Eastern Public Speaking Conference (EPSC) back in April 1939. 

One of his key points was that the taxpayer demands that pupils must pass. This was one of the things he learned being president of his local School Board, and from his perspective this was the fundamental job of public schools – ensuring that pupils must pass. So, why was this the cornerstone of what the schools were supposed to be doing?

Because, according to my grandfather, if students didn’t pass, then there must be something wrong with the school, and if there’s something wrong with the school, then the taxpayer’s not getting his money’s worth.

For his day job, RWD was employed by Oneida Ltd, the company that grew out of the Oneida Community. He was able to make a clear connection for the EPSC between silverware made in the factory to students ‘made’ in the schools. Here’s how he put it:

“In our factory, we know that if the silver spoon does not pass inspection, then one of three things must happen:
(1) either the spoon must be refinished at considerable expense
(2) or else it must be classed as a ‘second’
(3) or it may be so bad that it must be scrapped.”

And, when speaking of students: “The taxpayer’s instinct, if you will, tells him that, just like the spoon in our factory, the pupil who does not pass:
(1) either must be refinished – emotionally
(2) or else he is likely to become a ‘second’ – of less value to himself and to society than he might have been
(3) or he may even become ‘scrap’ – only you cannot throw a human being into the scrap barrel and forget him.”

So, what do you think? Can we make a correlation between a spoon that doesn’t pass inspection and a student that doesn’t pass inspection?

We know that a set of silverware seconds, or clothing seconds, or china seconds, cost less – in fact are worth less – even if the reason for having been deemed a ‘second’ is not visible to the untrained eye.

The difference with a human ‘second’, however is that we generally can tell who they are: the under-employed and under-motivated; the on again/off again unemployed and unmotivated; and the ones who are always in the wrong place at the wrong time, the ‘scrap’ who are perpetually engaged in the system: the public assistance system, the drug rehab system, the criminal justice system… all of the systems except the educational system, which might have saved them from being cast aside, if only everyone understood the rules.  And that was RWD’s second contention.

People must know the ‘why’ of school.  Just like in the factory, where the rules had to be known and understood by everyone if they were to be successful, he made the point that teachers needed to be able to explain the ‘why’ of what they were teaching, in ways that everyone, particularly the students, could understand.

But if you ask me, the ‘why’ part goes beyond the teachers - more on that next time.

April 7, 2010

Thoughts on Education, Part 2

On April 15, 1939 as the country began emerging from the Great Depression, my grandfather (we’ll call him RWD) delivered a paper at the Eastern Public Speaking Conference (EPSC), held here in Syracuse. The title of his paper was ‘The Taxpayer Looks at Our Public Schools.’

My grandfather, whom I never knew, was president of the School Board, and also worked at Oneida Ltd. I’m not sure what specifically led to him appearing before the EPSC. His paper, typed on now-faded paper, without a single typo or correction, mentions that he was invited to speak before the group, but doesn’t provide any reasons for the invitation.

His opening line? “It is not easy for a business man to talk to a group of teachers about education. I find that we don’t always talk the same language. And even when we use the same words, I find that we do not always mean the same thing.”

I get the sense he was there to speak in support of public speaking classes in schools, although even he admitted at the end that “…this is not the sort of paper that will inspire teachers to go on to do bigger and better things.” So, maybe he didn’t quite hit the mark he was aiming for 71 years ago; he might not have fully made the case for public speaking, but he did raise some interesting concepts about the state of education back then; here are some of his key points:
  • “The taxpayer demands that pupils must pass.”
  • “How many teachers today can describe ‘the why’ of the courses they are teaching?”
  • “It is the kids that are important, not educational formulae and traditions.”
  • “Educators must accept the social responsibility for seeing to it that kids (and their parents) see ‘the sense’ of the courses, and that pupils are motivated to creditable work.”
  • “It has been (his) experience that so-called ‘educated’ people do plenty of talking about education, but do very little hard thinking about the fundamental problems.”
  • And last: “… (You) who are carrying the torch should not always hold it on high. You should occasionally wave it lower down, so as to attract attention to the value you bring.”
Interesting, don’t you think, how little things have changed in all these years?

In upcoming posts, I’ll delve into what was behind the points RWD was trying to make back then, and how he pulled everything together at the end.  I think we'll find that what we as taxpayers want today from our educational system is really pretty much the same as what we would have looked for in my grandfather’s time.

April 1, 2010

Thoughts on Education, Part One

Used to be that the local newspaper would print exorbitant teacher salaries (emphasis added) in the paper…you know, a list of all teachers making $20,000 (heaven forbid) or all teachers making say $40,000… (Gasp!) I remember when my Dad made the $20,000 list – how embarrassing it was, not that he made so much money, but how little it was in comparison with the wages of other folks in the area, such as those at the local air conditioning and auto factories.

I remember thinking then that what my parents did – Mom was a teacher as well – was more valuable and worth more than say, someone pushing a broom around a factory, and yet the janitor made only a couple thousand dollars less than Dad (and Mom hadn’t even made the published list). Perhaps that was when I stopped being an idealist.

And now, it seems like we can’t open a newspaper without seeing at least one article talking about education – whether it’s late state aid, the number of teachers, cutting teacher positions or raising property taxes, or cutting or freezing teacher pay.  And even when concessions are made, the comments flood in from both sides, some saying the concessions are not enough, others saying they’ll open the floodgates to our overall demise.

Clearly there are strong opinions on both sides of the education discussion – I have a few of my own, naturally – and there is need for discussion if we’re all to come out on the right side of getting a good education for students so that we can continue to compete in a very changing world. I’ll share my thoughts in the coming days, but first, I wanted to add some historical perspective.

My Dad worked for Goodyear for many years before going back to school and becoming a teacher. We lived in the school district where my Dad taught –and eventually Mom too, once we kids were old enough not to have her as a teacher - because it was critical to them that they had skin in the game, that they be part of the community that was paying their salaries.

We were looking at some old family stuff this past weekend, and found some old paperwork from the school. Dad’s salary in the 1966 – 1967 school year, with his Masters degree complete, was $6650. My Mom, who at that time had four years’ teaching credit, was paid $6900. Fast forward to the 2009 -2010 school year, where according to a study by the New York State School Boards Association, the average salary for a new teacher with a Masters is $45,876.

Math was never my best subject, but it’s not hard to do a quick calculation and see that, in the 43 years between my Dad’s early years and present day, the starting salary’s gone up less than $1000 per year in actual (not adjusted) dollars. Is that really so much?