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Monday, March 21, 2011

The Same But Different

Tomorrow marks another session of our school-wide mentor program. This initiative that connects staff members of all roles with learners of all ages was proposed to address a dynamic central to the organizational culture of our school - the value of interpersonal relationships. After everything is said and done in terms of planning instruction, hiring staff, allocating resources, purchasing technology... the real critical attribute of a good school rests on the breadth and depth of relationships among members of the learning community.

The suggested topic for the mentor sessions is "diversity." This is certainly a subject worth examining and discussing. As countries and cultures become more interdependent and mobile, and the earth shrinks more and more with each new technological innovation, the need to understand and respect differences takes on greater importance. Yet, as former newscaster Tom Brokaw lamented a decade ago, we are finding that children are growing up at a time and in a world where they can instantly connect with someone halfway across the globe - but not know very much about their next door neighbor.

It's a bit ironic that when the inhabitants of our world should focus on diversity as an opportunity rather than an obstacle, we are becoming more narrow in our perspective in the arena of education. Differences shouldn't define us or divide us. However, one can make the case that in public education across our country, the movement for regulation and standardization is gradually promoting uniformity and a degree of homogenization that blurs differences existing by region and culture - from the rural and isolated fishing village clinging to the shore of Alaska, to the densely populated urban center of Chicago to the sprawling residential tracts of Dade County Florida. In addition, it matters in respect to ability and opportunity. The focus on a common core learning standard has the possibility of excluding those who require other experiences at engaging learning. A common curriculum with attendant skill and knowledge assessments produces a "one size fits all" dilemma that may increase efficiency but decrease effectiveness, just like it would if clothing or cars or virtually anything else was standardized. Again, it's ironic in a world of choices - from choosing among over a hundred television channels or selecting from countless different brands of the same commodity at big box stores - we are limiting opportunities in a quest for the Holy Grail of higher and higher achievement levels.

Beyond the narrowing learning opportunities and the limited creativity and spontaneity within the classroom, there is another risk associated with the homogenizing of public education. (I emphasize public education because - in another irony - the fastest growing service industry within the field of education includes alternatives like charter/private schools and home-schooling, two areas exempt from the reaches of standardization) With the surge toward a national standard of curriculum and measurements, we deprive local communities, big and small, from one of the most common exercises of democracy and one of the most accessible public forums for local politics - representation by your neighbors and community members who volunteer in the form of the local board of education. What political operative is more in tune with the needs and interests of investing your tax dollars in a manner that leverages successful contributions - the governor? the state assemblyman? one of your two U.S Senators? Do they know you? Do you run into them when you're shopping or going to the little league game? Are they like you? Can they appreciate the nuances of your community? Can they be held as accountable as school board members?

Among the difficulties facing school district budgets is the fact that in one pull of the lever you can directly and immediately impact the direction of your tax dollar. Try initiating an influence like that on where your federal tax dollars go. That accessibility presents a vulnerability. There is the prospect that people who are frustrated with their inability to determine how their taxes are spent at the state and national level will express their disappointment at the local level by defeating the school budget. I understand that, and regret the possibility. Politicians at the state and federal levels deal with incredibly large amounts of money that spin heads around trying to figure out how many millions are in a billion (there are 1,000) or a trillion (there are 1,000,000). That's mind boggling to me.

It seems reasonable enough to experience fatigue while attempting to sort through the deep discussions on economics in Albany and Washington D.C. And, especially when we are in the throes of an economic crisis where it seems that our state and national representatives are deaf to our concerns, one can turn to the confines of the small voting booth at the local school and register displeasure with the entire economy by venting and voting "No." So, it seems that the fatigue may find itself emerging during that point in May where one single vote can make a potentially significant difference in an election with the total votes cast is often measured in the hundreds instead of thousands and millions.

Is it fair? Not really. Does it happen? It could, but let's hope not. Lost in all of the debate on the cost of public education is the fact that 94% of all of the nearly seven hundred public school districts in New York State passed their budgets last year on their first try. Apparently people have confidence in their local school district and perceive it as a worthwhile investment in the future.

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