The Legislative Assembly shall provide by law for the establishment of a uniform, and general system of Common schools. -- Constitution of Oregon, Article VIII, Section 3

Saturday, August 28, 2010

your child's education is none of your business

No, I haven't heard any teacher, principal, or administrator actually say those words.

But many policies, at the local school, seem to imply this.

Before going further, let's back up a bit.  A common refrain in the political debates around education, is the importance of parental involvement.  There are numerous examples of entire school districts, or schools within a larger district, where one finds a large portion of children whose parents Just Don't Seem To Care.  In some cases, there's only one parent in the home, who has to balance a job (or two), the care of younger children, homemaking, etc.--and paying attention to Johnny's schoolwork is something there isn't time for.  In some cases, the parents are alcoholics, junkies, or otherwise unfit.  In some cases, Mom and Dad are too busy with careers, hobbies and lifestyle, or simply view education as the School's Problem.  In some cases, children are in foster care, living with other friends or relatives.  In some cases, children are hungry, homeless, abused, neglected, etc.

None of these things are conducive to a good education.  I agree 100%.

But my wife and I are not those parents; and our children are not those children.  We want to be involved.  We read to our kids, encourage them to participate in activities, and regularly discuss matters with our children's teachers.

But sometimes, it seems, the school doesn't want to listen.

the right kind of involvement

The local school district does actively solicit parental involvement in many ways.  Parents who can volunteer at school are welcome to do so.  Fundraising, of course, is a major area where parents are asked to help out.

But when the involvement consists of negative feedback--or suggestions on what ought to be taught and how--it suddenly seems less welcome.

My oldest has been attending public school for four years now.  He has many friends whose parents my wife and I have also become friends or acquaintances of.  And we compare notes.  Now that the younger kids are starting kindergarten--we've let the school know which teachers we like and which teachers we don't.  (And at our school--like most schools--you have a few burnouts, counting down the days to retirement; a few teachers who are happy to let the smarter kids coast; and a few teachers who are lots of fun, but seem to forget about the "teaching" part.  Per blog policy, no names shall be named).

And the school--tends to act a bit insulted by the suggestion.  Parental feedback on teachers?  Preposterous.  The teachers at X Elementary are credentialed professionals, the lot of 'em--the suggestion that one or more of them might not be effective at their jobs--intolerable.  If you make enough noise (and an important part of dealing with school bureaucracy is to make lots of noise, demand to talk to decision-makers, not office staff, if you have a dispute, and threaten to escalate matters if you don't get satisfaction), your wishes will probably, eventually be granted--but the wheel has to squeak quite a bit to get lubricated.  And even though your wishes are granted, is your feedback likely to be considered for teacher evaluation purposes? 

'Course not.

(And how are students assigned to teachers?  For the most part, randomly).

There are quite a few other examples of suggestions we've made that were not well received, or resulted in the runaround.  Suggestions concerning the specific needs of our kids (more challenging work, etc.).  Suggestions as to where they ought to be placed.  I am not an educational professional, and neither is my wife--if schools can come up with a good reason for why a particular decision was made, I'm happy to defer to the judgment of the people who are educational professionals.  (And I realize that schools are subject to lots of legal requirements from numerous levels of government, severe funding constraints, and an army of lawsuit-averse lawyers).  But I'm the expert when it comes to my kids, and I get annoyed when "policy" or other content-free excuses are cited as justification for decisions that from my point of view, look to be poorly made.

In short:  Parental involvement is important.  Many parents can't or won't provide it, but many of us can and will.  But when we do get involved, especially in ways which are not designed to benefit the school district, please--take us seriously.

Friday, August 27, 2010


Greetings, and welcome to the latest addition to the EngineerScotty blogging empire.  This blog is the unpolished apple.  The subject?  Education, in particular, public primary and secondary education--in the Portland metropolitan area, in the state of Oregon, in the United States, and elsewhere in the world.

Public school resumes in less than two weeks, so this seemed to be a good time to start an education-themed blog.

Who am I?  I'm a software engineer, transportation nerd, and dad who lives in the Portland metro area.  I have three children now in the public school system (or will when school starts); one 4th grader, and two twins in kindergarten.  The oldest is a TAG student, and the twins are also quite bright.  And I have, along with my wife (and probably will continue to do so) butted heads several times with local school officials concerning the quality of the education my kids are receiving.
What is this blog about?  In a word, education.  Some of you reading this will have come here by following links from my other blog, the Dead Horse Times, which covers transportation issues in particular, with the occasional foray into more generic politics (and the occasional bit of snark).  This blog will be more focused, and probably updated less frequently.  The viewpoint of this blog is that of Morgan Freeman's final line in the film 7even:
The world is a wonderful place, and worth fighting for.  I believe the second part.
That is how I feel about our schools:  They are flawed, but important.  They need serious improvement, but doing so is a vital project.  They are like an unpolished apple--far from ideal, but still nourishing.

A few notes--while I will frequently discuss dealings with our local public school and school district, I will avoid naming names.  This is to a) protect my own privacy and that of my family, and b) to avoid making this blog about X elementary school or Y school district--it's not.

the great education debate

Public education has long been a source of acrimonious debate in the US, and during the current financial situation (which sees the size of the pie shrinking), the appropriate role and amount of funding for our schools is expected to become even more controversial.  There are many interesting ideas for how to improve public schools (or other sources of education, including private schools, home schooling, etc.); and I believe there is much to learn from abroad.

One of the biggest challenges facing public schools going forward is the existence of two hostile entrenched camps in our body politic.  One one side of the debate, you have a group which considers the public school system writ large to be a colossal failure, and advocate massive restructuring (or abolishment of public education altogether).   This group includes many who don't consider public education (as traditionally understood) important to begin with--libertarians opposed to public anything, folks who simply don't like paying taxes, religious fundamentalists (mainly Christians) opposed to secular education (or seeking public finance of religious instruction), and anti-labor forces seeking to bust teachers' unions.  This groups also includes many whose own educational experiences are with school districts which are incompetent and corrupt, and who think the educational apple, rather than being unpolished, is rotten to the core.

On the other side, you have the educational establishment--the NEA, the AFT, and other public employee unions, other parts of the educational industry, as well as many groups who don't benefit from the current system but consider robust public education of critical importance--and react to alleged right-wing attempts to throw the baby out with the bathwater (after drowning it first) by forming alliances with the establishment.  Many in this group act as though nothing is wrong, or the things that are wrong are all things which can be solved with more money.   The two groups each are aligned with one of the two major political parties in the US, and thoroughly distrust each other.  Discussions of educational reform frequently turn into shouting matches, as one group gets accused of wanting to destroy the public schools, and the other gets accused of having no interest in education other than purely selfish ones.

entering switzerland
Swiss flag image courtesy Wikipedia

In this war, I am Switzerland.  I am not in either camp.  In some ways, I may be in both.  I believe publicly funded education, including (though not necessarily limited to) public schools owned and operated by we the people, are of vital importance.  I do not carry water for the teachers' unions, and I do not carry water for religious groups, anti-tax organizations, or the private sector education industry.

I have family members in both camps.  One of my sisters is a public school teacher in Washington State, and a strong defender of the current system.  My wife, a Chinese immigrant, is frequently aghast at what she sees here--and like me, has no fealty to either group (though her political leanings are more conservative than mine).  I have other family members who are consider the public school system a Bolshevik plot.

What camp am I in?  I'm in the camp that wants my children, and my neighbor's children, and my children's children, to have a high quality education.  I'm in the camp that gets frustrated when dealing with educational bureaucracy and lazy teachers who view smart kids as one they don't have to teach--but gets annoyed when demagogue politicians propose simplistic solutions to complicated problems (and worse, when they enact them).  Given that, I will probably cause equal offense to the two groups mentioned above.

At any rate, welcome!  The bell is about to ring!