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Editorial Reflections

We can’t afford to have our neighbors’ children be illiterate

 Throughout our country, many schools are in crisis, pulled in all directions by interest groups and reflecting the gross inequalities that afflict our economy and society.

What messages are we giving our children when we make it increasingly difficult for them to succeed in school?

Susan Nielsen, an associate editor at The Oregonian newspaper, recently took this slant when she began an opinion piece with, “‘Take fewer classes,’ said the principal.  ‘Sleep in,’ said the counselor.  ‘That’s good enough,’ said the superintendent.”

According to her, some adults in Oregon have been telling school children, especially teens, that “school is worth skipping.”  They have done it by shortening the school year, eliminating electives and ignoring the requirements for minimal instruction time. School should be a place where the lesson planned is the lesson taught, but often the law of unintended consequences pops up.

The transgressions are not identical, but schools across the country have tried various ways to meet demands of pressure groups and lower budgets.   There are varied approaches among and within the states. 

The usual school year is about 180 days, or 36 weeks.  Until recently, discussions about its length have centered on the need to add days and weeks.  Lately, school districts have been subtracting days, some as many as 30—six weeks of information and competence development lost.

After retiring, my husband and I moved to Spokane.  One of the first neighbors to call on us invited us to join a group of retirees that met for lunch and discussion at a local restaurant.  He said their main interest was local schools.  He didn’t sound positive.  Jim went to one meeting.  The group complained how dreadful local schools were, emphasizing how horribly dressed pupils walking by them were.  Their solution was to defeat school levies.  Jim told the man who invited  him, “I can’t afford to have my neighbor’s children be illiterate.”

One approach by such groups is the demand,  “Get rid of frills.  Teach the basics.”  Music, art and many electives are cut to save money and focus on math and science.

However, everything is connected.  Research shows a correlation between success in math and studying music.  A math teacher to whom I’m related has noticed that band members are among her strongest students.

The first violinist in a string quartet I listen to was concertmaster of a symphony orchestra until he went to graduate school to become an epidemiologist.  One quartet’s cellist was a medical student who had played with another orchestra.

There are few cure-alls for this situation, but an infusion of realistic optimism might help.  Volunteering at local schools or being active in a positive group could help teach children to value school and education.

Nancy Minard - Contributing editor

Copyright © April 2014 - The Fig Tree