Thursday, June 23, 2011

What Summer Vacation? or, My Case for Year Round Education

The bigger the summer vacation the harder the fall. -Unknown

People don't notice whether it's winter or summer when they're happy. -Anton Chekhov

Everyone else is done with school, but I work through the first week of August. And you know what, I love it.

Today I was eating lunch in the staff lounge, as usual, and the upcoming move and transition to a traditional calendar came up, as it often does. And one teacher mentioned that the district seems to be interested in year round education--might then, in the future, think about having more than the one year round school they'll have next year.

Umm, excuse me district, do you realize that you're changing a perfectly good year round program to a traditional schedule? I know given the budget cuts that those extra months of bussing is expensive, but all of a sudden now you might look into it? Really, I don't get how the administration makes decisions. When it should be, first and foremost, what can I do for the kids, the kids end up last on the list of priorities. So frustrating. We'd best be the first school they convert to year round if that's something they're interested in, that's all I've got to say.

So next year, I'm going to miss having a year round school. Why? I think it's good thing for everyone involved. It works well with the set up of my school--a lot of the summer term is spent on the all-school musical. The only hard thing is that everyone else--older siblings, neighborhood kids etc. are out of school. So kids get antsy, sometimes attendance drops, and there are more kids who roll in late. But that's partially due to the tradition of a summer break. That's all it is really--because that's how it's always been, that's "how it's supposed to be". But why? Adults work year round, and now they have to find childcare on their own while they're at work. So why not just keep the kids in school? Parents don't have to worry about them, and the kids have less time to get themselves into trouble. Plus research doesn't seem to lean one way or the other in favor of year-round education.

It's especially good for students who are of lower economic status, because they're less likely to afford fancy camps or have enrichment at home in terms of educational games, more books, parent support and resources to maintain academic progress at home. So maybe some middle-upper class family may disagree with year round education because they can't take their trip to Europe or whatever, because they think their kid needs that break from school. It's not that you don't get breaks--every ten weeks (or something) you get a 3 week break, 2 of which are optional (and more low key) classes.

But I think the breaks are the best part of a year round schedule! It's good for the staff too--kids and teachers alike can get burnt out. And with more frequent (and shorter) breaks, you can spend more time refreshed for work instead of slowly counting down the days to summer. And there's still a month off in the summer, which is longer than the other breaks.

And it does make sense--there's always that period of review at the beginning of the year. Any kid will lose something over the summer, take a step back in their studies. If there's a shorter break, there's less of a loss. I think it's worth the effort to add air conditioning to some buildings and spend the money on bussing. (I feel like air conditioning is literally the only thing keeping my school from getting to continue as a year round school. And they probably chose our relocation site so that they could take that away from us. I wouldn't put it past them--they did try to shut us down after all.)

Maybe some of my love for year-roundedness is selfish--and works out well for my Americorps program. I get random weeks off that no one else does, and when summer comes I still have regular hours and don't have to scramble to find work to fulfill my hours. Still, I wouldn't make the case if I didn't also think it was beneficial to the students. Ultimately, I'm not working for myself, the school district, the other teachers, or my supervisors. No, I'm working for the kids.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Money Money Money, Must Be Funny, In A Rich Man's World

"If all the rich and all of the church people should send their children to the public schools they would feel bound to concentrate their money on improving these schools until they met the highest ideals." -
Susan B. Anthony

"In recent years, we've become enamored with our own past success. Lulled into complacency by the glitter of our own achievements. We've become accustomed to the title of Military Superpower, forgetting the qualities that got us there. We've become accustomed to our economic dominance in the world, forgetting that it wasn't reckless deals and get rich quick schemes that got us where we are, but hard work and smart ideas, quality products and wise investments." -Barack Obama, Arizona State Commencement Speech, 2009

My dad has been saving articles about education from the NY Times for me. And they're good--but kind of depressing. Being part of a school impacted by budget cuts, I see first hand what's going on on a larger scale. And reading these articles, I see that it's not just St. Paul, or Minnesota, or Davis, or California that are affected. (The elementary school I attended was closed due to budget cuts while I was in college.) It's Levittown, Pennsylvania, or South Bronx, New York. It's *insert almost any city in the US.* I went to a school board meeting last month, and half of it was a budget presentation. And most of the public comments were complaining about budget cuts--everyone had a story, and a program or job that was unfairly shafted with the new proposal. But there's simply not enough money to go around.

Unfortunately, money speaks louder than what research/logic shows is best for kids. Dave Eggers and Nínive Clements Calegari wrote a great article titled "The High Cost of Low Teacher Salaries." The way America values and views the job of teaching affects education. Eggers and Calegari compared how we handle failures in education with failures in the military:
When we don’t get the results we want in our military endeavors, we don’t blame the soldiers. We don’t say, “It’s these lazy soldiers and their bloated benefits plans! That’s why we haven’t done better in Afghanistan!” No, if the results aren’t there, we blame the planners. We blame the generals, the secretary of defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. No one contemplates blaming the men and women fighting every day in the trenches for little pay and scant recognition.

And it's true--instead of giving schools extra funding and help so that they can better serve their youth, we take away funding.
There are some wonderful teachers out there who make amazing strides with the children they teach. But these days, it's in spite of the budget (or lack of), and in spite of standardized testing. From another article titled "The Math of Heartbreak," a teacher said "You want to be able to say that the amount of money you have to work with doesn't matter, and you can do the same quality job with less. And we can try to do that, but in what other enterprise is that true?" Unfortunately, money makes the world go round.

Money doesn't buy happiness--but to be happy you still need enough to get by. According to happiness research, there is a correlation between money and happiness--to a point. Once you reach a certain amount of money, your happiness won't increase by getting more. That certain amount though, is the amount to live comfortably. And if you're struggling to get by, as a teacher, how is that going to help your students? The more outside stressors there are, the less energy you're going to have for your kids. And for some of them, you're the last line of defense for a better future, because they're not getting much help in their home life. And instead of empowering kids, the government is telling them they don't care enough about their future to afford everyone a quality education, regardless of color, gender, socioeconomic status, what have you.

Yes, I know the government is having budget issues. And you know what's really going to make a difference? Not cutting the education budget. Because that's an investment in the future. And the amount you're saving now is just pocket change compared to the amount you need to fix the budget. It's like expecting the economy to be fixed because we cut funding for NPR. It's an investment to close the achievement gap--which by slashing the budget we're maintaining--and increasing the gap, and the cycle of poverty. Which it seems that a lot of (rich white male) members of government don't care about, because they're not personally affected by it.

Eggers and Calegari briefly address the money issue:
For those who say, “How do we pay for this?” — well, how are we paying for three concurrent wars? How did we pay for the interstate highway system? Or the bailout of the savings and loans in 1989 and that of the investment banks in 2008? How did we pay for the equally ambitious project of sending Americans to the moon? We had the vision and we had the will and we found a way.

We're AMERICA for goodness sakes. With liberty and justice for all. Those shouldn't just be words, or an ideal. America stands for freedom and equality, but we're not doing a very good job at living up to that. Education has the potential to even the playing field, so to speak. We can do better.